When residents and visitors walk into City Hall, they are greeted by some constants: The California state flag and the United States flag, the seal of the city, and four simple, yet historically significant words… IN GOD WE TRUST.
References to a divine power can be found at the very beginning of our country’s existence, where the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence invokes the Laws of Nature and Nature’s GOD when justifying the need to separate from the political ties we held with Great Britain.
Even the Preamble to the California State Constitution states, “We, the People of the State of California, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure and perpetuate its blessings, do establish this Constitution.”
America has often called upon divine inspiration to galvanize, bring together, and offer clarity when the world was presenting challenges to the foundation of our existence. During the Civil War, when the country was arguably at its most divided, both the North and the South looked to God for clarity and righteousness in their causes.
In 1864, IN GOD WE TRUST first appeared on coinage for the Union, and later in 1955, a joint resolution of Congress was approved by then-President Dwight Eisenhower (during the tumultuous Cold War era), which required IN GOD WE TRUST to appear on all American currency. And, in 1956, President Eisenhower signed legislation declaring IN GOD WE TRUST as our national motto.
But government actions, even with the best and noblest of intentions, do not often come without criticism or strife. At the time, many Christian-based publications, while happy with the designation, felt it was not “religious” enough, suggesting phrases like “in God ALONE is our trust,” or “GOD our Christ” were more appropriate.
Other non-religious publications were adamant that the phrase had no place in government, as they believed in the existence of the separation of church and state in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, whereas Thomas Jefferson said, created a “Wall of Separation” between religion and government.
The New York Times editorial board said, “Let us carry our religion — such as it is — in our hearts, and not our pockets.”
And make no mistake, the challenges of our national motto did not solely rest in the realm of public opinion, but in the court of law as well! There have been several challenges relating to religion and its inference by the government. In Envel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York law that encouraged public schools to recite a prayer, as was written in state law. The court ruled the law violated the First Amendment.
Polls suggested that the overwhelming majority at the time disapproved of this near-unanimous decision, and felt it was the beginning of a political crusade against religion from the courts.
To date, however, several appellate courts who have been asked to opine on “In God We Trust” as constitutional when displayed on currency, have ruled it can remain without violating the First Amendment. The 9th Circuit in Aronow v. United States said, “Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of religious exercise,” and that rationale has continued to hold.
I have often thought about these words and pondered their significance, their origin, and how they have been a part of America’s evolution. Religion and faith are often tested and called upon when we need them to help understand both the good and bad that we deal with in the world. We celebrate “Nature’s God” in our own way with our own principles or religious enshrinements, but I would suggest to us all, just like with your government, don’t look to God to only solve perceived problems.
If we ask government or God to fulfill our desires and reaffirm what we believe is right, it won’t be long until we rationalize their use to ignore the basic principles and inherent liberties we possess. We will call on government to dictate what is “right,” all under the guise of our own well-being, or that of a society we imagine could exist with the help of a higher power’s benevolence at the expense of our individual freedoms.
May our elected leaders always remember their oaths of office, always act within the confines of law and the Constitution, and always use the trust given to them by the people in a moral and righteous manner.
For in people we believe, in America we endeavor for liberty and justice, and in God, we trust.
Jason Gibbs is a member of the Santa Clarita City Council. “Right Here, Right Now” appears Saturdays and rotates among local Republicans.