In God We Trust

There have been recent legal challenges regarding the required reciting of prayers at all of our country’s military academies. In God We Trust: So, what’s the harm?

Way back in the summer of 1787 in Independence Hall on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, our country’s founders wrote the words that we all learn in our junior high school history classes and again in our high school history classes, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

At the Constitutional Convention, our country’s founders also wrote Article VI, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.  The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. Clause 3, or “The No Religious Test Clause” was also intended to demonstrate that our country’s founders intended to remove any links between politicians’ personal religious beliefs from our legal system, which at the time was a very progressive concept. And then after the subsequent debating, discussions and ratification, our constitution was entered into effect, effective as of December 15th, 1791. Effective as of December 15th, 1791, at least in theory.

In July of 1956, Congress approved our national motto, and it has been notably controversial ever since then.  If our state or Federal politicians were to approve legislation which would effectively change our motto to “In Allah We Trust,” “In Buddha We Trust,” “In Jesus We Trust,” “In Vishnu We Trust,” “In Krishna We Trust,” or “In The Flying Spaghetti Monster We Trust,” we’d have riots in almost every major American city within a few days of such legislation being approved, and our cities’ downtown neighborhoods would look like war zones. So why do we still tolerate our national motto? We read about the current Alabama Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who had hired workers to bring a stone slab with the Ten Commandments etched into it into the Alabama State Courthouse.  13 years ago, back in 2003, when he refused to remove the stone monument which he’d paid for with his own personal funds from the state’s supreme court building, there were protests throughout Montgomery, both in favor of as well as opposed to Justice Moore’s placing of the monument and his refusal to remove it.  Back in 2003, the Alabama Court Of The Judiciary ordered not only the removal of the monument but the removal of Justice Moore as well.  And more recently, in 2012, the people of Alabama reelected Roy Moore as Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court. The inspiration and the justification are in fact coming from a higher authority; the idea that it somehow makes sense to do this is in fact inadvertently partially originating from as well as being reinforced by our Federal government itself.

In God We Trust in our elementary schools

From our first day of kindergarten or first grade as elementary school students, we all learn to recite the magic words at the beginning of each morning.  Prior to June of 1954, our pledge to of allegiance actually read, “… and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  The reference to a deity was not added until the spring of 1954. Policies vary between states, counties and local school boards as to whether teachers in the elementary schools requiring their students to recite the pledge to the flag each morning is optional or mandatory.  And in the school districts which do require that students recite the pledge each morning, the degree to which the administrators at those schools actually enforce the requirement also varies.  However, the concept that there is something called The United States Of America, it is a “Republic,” it is represented by a flag with red and white stripes and 50 white stars against a blue background, and that this republic is one nation under something called “God” often begins in the morning of the first day of kindergarten or first grade elementary school classes.

In God, We Trust  in our junior high schools and our high schools

We keep reading that despite Federal decisions which prohibit teaching religion as science, numerous local, county and state school boards throughout the U.S. still keep trying to require teaching “intelligent design” as an alternative theory to evolution as part of the required curriculums in their junior high school and their high school biology classes.  The example that we read about most frequently is schools in which teachers use “intelligent design” as an alternative theory to evolution to explain life on earth.  However, if one is actually to accept that “intelligent design” is a legitimate scientific concept, then one would also believe that the entire universe could have been created by an “intelligent design,” and one would actually have to consider dismissing many concepts in physics, chemistry, astronomy, oceanography as well as geology. God’s presence is not limited to the biology classes in the junior high schools and the high schools in various school districts in some regions of the U.S. Many high schools also offer junior ROTC programs which are sponsored by the various branches of our military.  Policies and practices vary from program to program, and policies vary between different school districts, but in some of these junior ROTC programs, the cadets are required to recite prayers which mention “Him,” in some of these programs reciting prayers is optional, and in some of these programs, prayers and any references to any religious concepts is prohibited entirely.  However, when the junior cadets initially enroll in these programs, they are all required to recite and oath, which only a slight modification of the oaths that soldiers who enlist in our military or cadets in our military academies swear- and “He” is mentioned in the wording of those oaths. Wooden cross on vintage American flag canvas background /Copyright: laura.h Wooden cross on vintage American flag canvas background /Copyright: laura.h

In God, We Trust in youth programs throughout the U.S.

The only youth programs which I’m opting to discuss the role of a bronze age deity in is the Boy Scouts Of America and The Girl Scouts.  The Boy Scouts Of America and The Girls Scouts are actually the American branches of The World Organization Of Scout Movement.  The Boy Scouts Of America first began operating in the U.S. back in 1910, and the Girl Scouts followed 2 years later in 1912.  Over the course of the past 104 years, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts have become a part of American youth culture.  Membership in the youngest branches of both of those two groups (the Cub Scouts and the Brownies) begins at age 7, and then at the age of 10 or 11, the youth graduate up to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, which they can participate in through the age of 18.  After they turn 19, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have the option to continue to participate in the Venturing and the Sea Scout programs until the age of 21.  Approximately 4.5 million American children and teens are currently participating in the Cub Scouts, the Brownies, the Boy Scouts, The Girl Scouts, the Sea Scouts and the Venture Scouts, and another approximately 1 and a half million adult volunteers work with these organizations. The ideology of these organizations clearly opposes atheism; the oath in the Boy Scouts begins with “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country,” and Girl Scouts recite, “On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country …”  In recent years, Girl Scouts have been permitted to substitute the words “Allah” or “faith” for “God,” but they are still required to acknowledge a belief in a religion as part of their oath. Childrens’ and teens’ decisions to participate in these organizations is entirely voluntary, as is the decisions of the adults who volunteer to work with them.  I’m choosing to mention these two organizations here for some specific reasons.  Firstly, both of these two organizations hold a Title 36 Congressional charter, which is a charter that is specifically reserved for patriotic organizations.  Secondly, until recently, many federal, state and local organizations throughout the U.S. were sponsoring these organizations, although, since 2010, the ACLU has been able to block any further sponsoring from any government agencies.

In 2004, an ACLU lawsuit forced the Department Of Defense to end all future sponsorship to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, but the following year in 2005, Congress passed the Support Our Scouts Act as part of the 2005 Department Of Defense Appropriations Act, which essentially reinstated Defense Department sponsoring of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.

Because these organizations do receive sponsorship from the Department of Defense, they are not permitted to ban teens who are atheists from participating.  However, while the ideologies of these organizations are clearly nondenominational, the concept of they are learning skills that will be part of their collective “duty to God and to the country” is still entrenched within these organizations.

In God, We Trust  in our military 

Washington DC Capitol dome detail on american flag background

There have been recent legal challenges regarding required reciting of prayers at all of our country’s military academies, including a case in 2008 in which cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy At Annapolis asked the American Civil Liberties Union to force the naval academy to end the mandatory reciting of daily prayers. The “Cadet Prayer” at “ The Citadel, The Military College Of South Carolina” which all cadets are required to memorize begins “Almighty God, the source of light and strength, we implore thy blessing on this our beloved institution, that it may continue true to its high purposes”   Once again, imagine if “Vishnu,” “Allah,” “Jesus,” “Buddha”, “Krishna” or “The Flying Spaghetti Monster” were substituted. Policies vary between each of the Federally funded military academies, the state military academies such as Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel and the various military high schools throughout the U.S. as to whether reciting daily prayers is mandatory or optional, and in the instances in which reciting prayers is mandatory, the prayers that are recited at each of these institutions is worded differently.  The prayers are all nondenominational, though they will all mention a “God.”  Numerous recent lawsuits filed by the ACLU are forcing some of the military academies to make the reciting of daily prayers as part of the cadets’ routines to become optional, although at some of the military academies in the U.S., reciting daily prayers is still mandatory.  While prayers are increasingly becoming optional, swearing an oath when cadets enroll in these academies is mandatory.  And guess who they all swear or affirm to?  “So help me …” And the bronze age deity is almost always mentioned again during the graduation ceremonies from the military academies. The phrase “so help me God” appears at the end of the oaths that all of our soldiers in our military recite when they enlist.  And similar to the military academies, for those who do successfully complete their Initial Entry Training in the various branches of our military, (more commonly referred to as “basic training,”) guess which deity is mentioned during the graduation ceremonies.  In fact,me , there have been a number of recent cases in which soldiers have gotten into trouble for refusing to mention the word “god” during the graduation ceremonies.

In God, We Trust  in our Federal government

How many people know who Barry C. Black is?  How many people know who Patrick J. Conroy is?  What?  Seriously?  Don’t you know who the current Chaplains of both of our houses of Congress are?  The chaplains who either lead the prayers which open each session of the Senate and the House Of Representatives, or invite guests who are all clergy in different religions to lead the opening prayers? I’ll also bet that most of you don’t know that the annual salary for the Senate chaplain is now $155,000.00 per year and that the annual budget for the office of the Senate Chaplain is $415,000.00.  The House Of Representatives Chaplain’s annual salary is now $172,500.00.  If you work in the United States Of America and you pay your taxes, then you have contributed to their annual salaries.  In this country which was (remember- at least in theory) founded on the principle of separation of religion and government, we’re now paying a total of more than half a million dollars per year to support the offices and the two Congressional chaplains and their staff. Aside from the opening of each session of both of our houses of Congress, “God” is also in the oaths that all members of both of our houses of Congress recite, as well as the Presidential and the Vice Presidential oaths that each of our presidents and our vice presidents recites at their inaugurations.  The oaths of office end with the phrase “so help me God.”  The wording of the current oath dates back to 1884. The phrase “so help me god” is often optional in the oaths that people swear when they are hired for state offices, including the law enforcement oath of honor. The phrase is also optional in the oath that people recite when they become naturalized U.S. citizens.

In God, We Trust in our courts

The phrase “so help me god” appears in the oaths that Federal judges recite when they first become judges in most city, county, state and Federal courts.  Jurors are given the option to place their hand on a copy of a bible and swear an oath which ends in “… so help you, God,” or to swear an alternative oath with makes no reference to any religious deities.  Witnesses who testify in the courts are given the same two options.  In most of our Federal, state, city and county courtrooms, the phrase “In God, We Trust” still appears behind the seats where the judges sit.

In God, We Trust in our prisons

In recent years, judges in several states have attempted to tell certain convicts that they if they can prove to the judge that they are attending church services regularly, they can be offered reduced jail sentences, or even have their sentences reduced to probation.  In every instance in which a judge has made such an offer, higher courts do successfully declare that these offers are unconstitutional; the higher courts have not yet allowed any of these offers to succeed, the state courts always declare that these offers violate the separation of church and state as well as the First Amendment.  However, why do the initial judges who are hearing these criminal cases even believe that it is somehow appropriate to make these offers to defendants, to begin with? In many states, when people are sent to prison, they are offered opportunities to participate in The Inner Change Freedom Initiative program.  While this program does not involve reducing sentences, it is intended to teach Christian fundamentalist ideals to prison inmates, with the intent that this will steer them away from wanting to return to criminal activities when they are released.  These programs have been studied, the evidence is controversial as to whether these programs actually result in long-term benefits.  Participation in the Inner Change Freedom Initiative programs, which are operated by The Prison Fellowship International is always voluntary, it is never mandatory, so I would not otherwise opt to mention these programs here, except that former President George W. Bush had attempted to secure Federal funding for these programs as part of his proposed “faith-based initiatives.”  The InnerChange Freedom Initiative program is an example of a religious organization which is working within our nation’s prisons which are publicly funded.

In God we trust
Coin of Silver American Money with words In God We Trust /Copyright: Lane V. Erickson

In God We Trust: So, what’s the harm?

For the most part, in the 21st century now, people seem to be largely willing to accept that wherever you live in the U.S., all local city, town and village laws are always going to be superseded by the authority of your county laws.  People don’t object to the fact that county laws are always subject to the authority of our 50 state governments, or the government of the District Of Columbia.  And our state laws will always be subject to the high authority of our Federal government.  However, most candidates for office do very clearly recognize that one of the easiest ways to ensure that they will lose an election will be to state that they believe that U.S. Federal law is subject to the higher authority of 21st-century international law, international treaties, IGO’s, and to nothing else. Essentially, by having the idea that a deity whose origins date back to what fragments of bronze age and iron age religious texts that have survived into the present day is smiling down upon our country, or  that “He” approves of our governing system, or we’re citing our collective acknowledgement of “His” higher authority so deeply entrenched in so many of our public institutions from our childhood years continuing on up through the present day, we’re creating a sense that the decisions that are made by the people who work in our government agencies are somehow linked to peoples’ understanding of a “higher power” or a “higher authority.”  Which should be true.  We should be doing everything we can to ensure that domestic laws never contradict international law, and when any of our government agencies, law enforcement agencies, our schools, our prisons, our courts or our military commits any acts which violate international law, we’ll be held accountable. However, as I’ve pointed out, one of the fastest ways to frighten many of our politicians is to mention the idea that our Federal government, our government agencies, our law enforcement agencies and our military should also be held accountable to the same treaties and institutions of 21st century international law as our government keeps citing countries in the developing world for violating. We’re inundated with references to “God” from the day we begin elementary school, up through the daily activities of our adult lives.  We watch the Presidential and Vice Presidential inaugurations on television.  People who have family members who serve in the military watch video footage of military graduation ceremonies or the graduation ceremonies from the military academies.  We know that our Congressmen, Congresswomen, our Federal judges and many of our state and local politicians have sworn oaths which end with the word “God.” By instilling or repeating the concept that our government and our government agencies are accountable to the higher authority of “God” rather than to “international law,” we actually may doing more a lot more harm than many people realize, and this is an issue which receives almost no coverage at all in our mainstream media.  The term “God” will mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people.  In fact, it will mean a million different things to a million different people.  The term will actually have ten million different meanings to ten million different people.  The word is in fact so vague, it actually means whatever anyone wants it to.  And there’s some of the real potential harm. Unlike some of the countries in the North Africa, Arabia and the Middle East whose governments clearly have an official state religion, or countries such as Argentina or Malta whose national constitutions clearly specify that Catholicism is their official state religions, we clearly have no official state religion here in the United States Of America.  However, I’m asserting that the constant references to “God” which have found their way into our public institutions is another form of reintroducing religious concepts back into our government.  We see and hear the phrases “in God we trust,” and “so help me God” so frequently that many of us probably don’t even notice anymore.  How often do we stop and think about the potential impact of the repeated references the word “God” appearing on all of our coins and bills and most of our courts, the word “God” also appears in the opening prayers in both houses of Congress, in the oaths that all of our judges swear, in the oaths and prayers that are recited in our military academies, Junior ROTC programs, the branches of our military, as well the oaths that many of our law enforcement agencies have new officers swear when they are first hired?  This is comparable perhaps to seeing flags- if you see (or hear) something frequently enough, you stop noticing it consciously, and many people probably stop thinking about it consciously.

The presence of the term “God” which appears in so many of our public institutions as I’ve discussed does not advocate for any specific views on any foreign or domestic policy issues, but rather the continued reference to “His” presence within our public institutions rather creates conditions in which people feel that there is no need to pay any attention to international law at all because our government is accountable to “God” as a higher authority.  And as I’ve mentioned earlier, because the term “God” will mean so many millions of different things to so many millions of different people, we end up with people acknowledging a “higher authority” or a “higher power” which actually means absolutely nothing at all.

The presence of the word “God” in the various oaths that I’ve mentioned, in our courts as well as in our currency may also contribute to making some people who move to the U.S. from overseas feel like outsiders when they arrive here, and they start to try to find a house, an apartment, and a job.  Most recent arrivals will view the presence of the word “God” so visible in so many of our public institutions as nothing more than an oddity in American culture, some people may find it offensive.  T Think about how you would feel if you moved to another country and the phrase “In Allah We Trust,” “In Buddha We Trust,”  “In Vishnu We Trust,” “In Krishna We Trust,” or “In The Flying Spaghetti Monster We Trust” appears in their courts, in their coins and bills, and you learned that their politicians, their judges, their soldiers and many of their law enforcement officers swear an oath when they are accepted for their jobs which end in the phrase “… so help me, Allah,” “…so help me, Buddha,”  “so help me Vishnu,” “so help me, Krishna,” “… so help me Flying Spaghetti Monster,” etc.  Most of us would recognize that this is simply something that is probably a part of someone else’s culture, but this could potentially serve to alienate people who have recently moved from other parts of the world who are already struggling to learn how to adjust to living in a region of the world that is not yet familiar to them. 

Read also: Our Youth Is Ignorant Of World Affairs


Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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