In God We Trust or E Pluribus Unum? (Pt. I of V)

SO MANY WAYS to attack this hare-brained proposal from Huntington Beach city council members Joe Carchio and Cathy Green to post “In God We Trust” in council chambers, SO LITTLE TIME. It’s looking to be a FIVE-post Sunday, but I must be about my Father’s business (keeping religion out of politics and vice-versa for the benefit of both.)

It is true that “In God We Trust” has been our official national motto since 1956, but before that we all considered our national motto to be “E Pluribus Unum,” which was approved by our Founding Fathers in 1782 for use on the Great Seal of the United States. They just didn’t think of the silly extra gesture of making it the “Official motto.”

“E Pluribus Unum” translates “one out of many,” connoting the then-exhilarating notion that thirteen very diverse colonies could form a Union, but in the centuries since then it’s become associated with our melting pot, our unity-and-strength-thru-diversity that makes the American nation special—our kaleidoscope of races, national origins, and religions.

1956 was the height of the Cold War and McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts, and American politicians (prodded by Catholic activists like the Knights of Columbus) began to insert “God” language into many previously secular government contexts, in order to distinguish us from our militantly atheistic Soviet foes. At that time, “under God” was added to our Pledge of Allegiance, “So help me God” was added to the oaths of judges, and “In God We Trust” not only became our official motto but began to be printed on our paper money.

Amazing how we’ve all grown up assuming these phrases date back to the birth of our nation, when they were really just tools for 1950’s cold warriors to yank Stalin’s mustache!

At this point (at this point in this essay, and also at this point at the dawn of a new millennium) it’s worth asking ourselves, should we continue to further enshrine an exclusionary and borderline-theocratic slogan from one of the darker eras of our history when we quaked in fear of a nuclear attack from an implacable Soviet foe, or instead return to a phrase celebrating our diversity and unity dating from the heady days of our young Republic?

But there’s a further irony which our dear departed Juice brother Claudio pointed out in one of his final posts: “In God We Trust” worked well in 1956 for distinguishing ourselves from our atheistic Soviet nemesis, but nowadays our main foreign enemy is a bunch of religious freaks. “In God We Trust” is exactly the kind of thing the Taliban, the Iranian mullahs, and the Al Qaeda fantasists display everywhere; what distinguishes us from them is our secular system of government and our tolerance of diversity. Seen this way “E Pluribus Unum” is not only much more wholesome and less objectionable, it’s also FIGHTING WORDS. I would totally support putting up THAT motto in council chambers or ANYWHERE.

Quick word on the “constitutional” aspect: It’s been a matter of contention over the centuries how far to take the First Amendment’s anti-establishment strictures and the “wall of separation of church and state” (which is actually not in the Constitution but in a letter from Jefferson, but has been referenced in many Supreme Court opinions.) Some militant atheists (I met one once) argue that the use of the religious motto on coins and elsewhere is a violation of their right not to believe in a deity, but this has yet to be ruled on officially. Personally, in this case, I prefer to convince serious Christians and patriotic Americans that measures like the one in Huntington Beach are something they don’t want. Meanwhile, a word from a religious expert on the Separation of Church and State, 1700 years before Tom Jefferson:

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,
and unto God the things that are God’s”
—Jesus Christ, circa AD 32


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.