Fifty-five years ago this weekend, at the height of the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower designated “In God We Trust” as the national motto of the United States. Even before then, the motto had long been part of the American tradition.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln placed it on the nation’s coins to help guide the country through that great scourge of war. This practice continues today, except the motto is now on all of the nation’s currency, not just the coins. In 1814, Francis Scott Key also employed the phrase in the last stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “And this be our motto: In God is our Trust.” Even the Declaration of Independence appealed to “the Supreme Judge of the world.”
Eisenhower, Lincoln, Keys, and the Founders all understood the sentiment of George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation: “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor.”
Not everyone embraces this motto. The American Humanist Association recently opposed its inclusion on a Georgia license plate design, saying it “does not speak for all Americans” and is “a slap in the face to the thousands of Georgia residents who respect the separation of church and state.” This group fundamentally misunderstands the First Amendment. The separation of church and state is not about barring all religious language or references to God from the public square—it is about preventing laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” which the motto does not do.
Throughout trying times in our history—the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the Cold War—Americans have embraced the meaning of this motto. It is only appropriate that we remember it today for what it is: neither mere words printed on the dollars in your wallet nor an establishment of religion, but an acknowledgement of “the providence of Almighty God.”
Thomas Sanford is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm