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Gustav Niebuhr

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Congress Considers "In God We Trust"... But Who Is This God?

Posted: 03/21/11 03:09 PM ET

The agenda for the House of Representatives contains a bill, recently reported out of the Judiciary Committee, that asks our elected officials to reaffirm "In God We Trust" as our national motto. News reports indicate the bill's supporters appear particularly keen on having public school classrooms display the motto, so that children can spend their days gazing upon it.

Granted, "In God We Trust" has a long public record, dating back to 1864, when the government first started engraving it on our coinage. It became the national motto when Congress voted it as such in 1956. Think those two years might have shared anything? In each case, the nation perceived itself in a life-or-death struggle -- the Civil War in the first instance, the Cold War in the second. And given that the principal enemy the second time around was the Soviet Union, the idea of adopting "In God We Trust" as our national motto must have seemed a pretty clear way to distinguish Americans from the godless Commies in Moscow.

An obvious question to ask is why our public servants think now would be a good time to throw the spotlight back on the motto? To be sure, we're again at war and have very recently enlarged the field of battle to include Libya.

But a more pertinent question -- and an enduring one for the country -- is, who is this God in whom we are called to place our trust? (I'm not talking about religious pluralism here, the important theological differences among the believing population, whose members call themselves Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.)

The God whose name shows up on our currency and is at the heart of the proposed legislation is, I'm inclined to believe, a national deity, considered by Americans as our special guardian. In other words, this is not the biblical God, but a deity invoked by politicians who close their speeches with a ritual plea, "God Bless America." I hear that as a prayer -- and sometimes it sounds foreshortened, with the longer version being, "America's God, Bless America."

Forty-four years ago, the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah wrote a wonderfully perceptive and influential essay about Americans' "civil religion," which he identified as a set of beliefs and rituals that draw some inspiration from Christianity and Judaism, but which exist separately from them. This faith includes a God invoked on public ceremonial occasions, has its own roster of martyrs (heroes fallen, defending the nation) and celebrates its own holidays (especially, Memorial Day).

But there's another way to look at "In God We Trust," and it's one that ought to be of real concern to religionists.

Twice in the last three decades, the Supreme Court has specifically identified that phrase as being void of substantive sacred meaning. The justices describe the phrase as "ceremonial deism." The late Justice William Brennan wrote that the motto falls into a category of public expression that has "lost through rote repetition any significant religious content."

If you are a believing monotheist, is that how you want God's name treated?

Compare that with the God described by Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, a deity that Lincoln described as sovereign, mysterious, and possessed of a power of judgment beyond any human control.

Of warring Northerners and Southerners, Lincoln said, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other ... The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

The last six words are a powerful theological statement. Congressional supporters of the motto might do well to meditate on them before pushing their bill any further. Indeed, the Representatives might engrave Lincoln's sentence on a plaque for their own offices, where they hang it in a prominent place so they can see it every day.