In this essay, “In God We Trust”, the official motto of the United States, is discussed as an illustration of the contested character of American civil religion. Applying and evaluating assumptions from Robert N. Bellah and his critics, a conceptual history of the motto is presented, showing how from its first appearance to today it has inspired debates about the place of civil religion in American culture, law, and politics. Examining these debates, the changing character of the motto is explored: its creation as a religious response to the Civil War; its secularization as a symbol on the nation’s currency at the turn of the twentieth century; its state-sponsored institutionalization during the Cold War; its part in the litigation that challenged the constitutionality of civil religious symbolism in the era of the culture wars; and its continuing role in the increasingly partisan political battles of our own time. In this essay, I make the case that, while seemingly timeless, the meaning of the motto has been repeatedly reinterpreted, with culture, law, and politics interacting in sometimes surprising ways to form one of the nation’s most commonly accepted and frequently challenged symbols. In concluding, I speculate on the future of the motto, as well as on the changing place of civil religion in a nation that is increasingly pluralistic in its religion and polarized in its politics.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited