Hours after teachers marched on Raleigh to talk about funding needs for their schools, their students, and, yes, even themselves, a bill (House Bill 965) was introduced in the General Assembly to place mottos, national (“In God We Trust”) and state (“Esse quam videri”—”To Be Rather Than to Seem”), on the walls of our public schools. The teachers and their allies didn’t have that one on their list and it’s no wonder why.
In a country whose dominant norm is Christianity, the loudest current version being evangelicalism verging on fundamentalism, the word “God” conjures up images of “Our Father who art in heaven.” Hence, the motto “In God We Trust” is not benign, as some would have us believe. For those whose god is other than “our father,” whose beliefs are protected by the First Amendment, a bit of mental translation is necessary to reinterpret the motto’s meaning to fit one’s own religious tradition. For those who have no religious tradition, whose beliefs also are protected by the First Amendment, the motto is an affront.
For those who DO believe the tenets of Trinitarian Christianity, we don’t need a sign at school telling us who we trust. Families and faith communities offer ample opportunity in the course of a week to reinforce that trust—worship, prayer, Bible studies, fellowship gatherings, small group studies, etc. There’s plenty of trust in God found among the congregations affiliated with the North Carolina Council of Churches and we can provide ample resources to help build more trust.
It’s a clever ploy to appropriate a motto already found on every coin in every child’s pocket, but this particular motto has its own loaded history worth understanding before we start plastering it on our public school walls.
The country’s first motto — adopted in 1782 for use on the seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) — has been used on money since 1795. This motto worked just fine until 1956 when “In God We Trust” was adopted as an alternative.
During the 1950s, our country was besieged by a bifurcated mindset that pitted “American freedom” against the “godless” Soviet Union. A motto was just the thing we needed to set us apart. More was at stake, however, than saying our belief in God was stronger than Soviet communism. Also at work was the confluence of an economic business perspective bristling under the social welfare policies of the New Deal and conservative Christian leaders interested in pursuing their own version of nationalized religion through the implementation of restrictive laws. Strange bedfellows, indeed, since the precepts of the New Deal clearly project the Christian principles enumerated in the Gospel—care for the poor being chief among them.
Those motto-promoting Christians, however, left the poor in the ditch in exchange for repressing reproductive rights, opposing marriage equality, and challenging integration.
The current polarization in this country didn’t begin on the 2016 election trail. It’s always lurked in the wings, ready to pounce whenever people feel insecure. HB 965 plays right into the hands of those who don’t care a whit about whether public education is appropriately funded as long as corporations and their stockholders remain free from social responsibility.
“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?” (Matthew 25:37-38).
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland, is executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches.