The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution famously begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Known as “The Establishment Clause,” the concept of the separation of “Church” and state, a bedrock value of the Founding Fathers, was not undertaken, necessarily, because the Founders were atheists. Rather, it was intended to allow individuals to choose how much, if any, religion they desire to practice, and to welcome a multiplicity of religions and religious practices. It can be argued that Americans are more religious than citizens of countries that have formal institutionalized churches, because the Founders, allowed for “free exercise” and distanced themselves from governmental imposition of spirituality. At the same time, U.S. presidents and the government itself, has never shied away from invoking God. For the most part, Americans, as a whole, have always been a religious people.

In 1861, a Pennsylvania minister petitioned Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to include “Almighty God” on U.S. currency. The idea was to leverage God for the Union side of the Civil War, and, in the words of the pastor, to “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.” Congress passed a bill on March 3, 1865, allowing the Director of the U.S. Mint to add “In God We Trust” to U.S. coinage. “In God We Trust” was also used in the relatively unknown fourth stanza of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner,” which was adopted as the U.S. national anthem in 1931.

“In God We Trust,” however, disappeared from certain coins over the years. Consequently, in 1908, Congress legislated that “In God We Trust” be engraved on all coins where it had previously appeared. Indeed, it has appeared on all U.S. minted coins since 1938.

Motivated by a desire to distinguish itself from the anti-religious Soviet Union during the Cold War, the 84th Congress passed a joint resolution declaring “In God We Trust” to be the national motto. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill into law on July 30, 1956, and also decreed that all U.S. currency bear the new national motto.

There have been multiple challenges to the legality of the inclusion of God in the national motto, arguing that it violates “The Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment. None of the litigation, however, has resulted in a reversal of the policy. In 2006, on the 50th anniversary of the creation of the national motto, Congress re-affirmed the resolution by a vote of 396-9. Several other jurisdictions have adopted “In God We Trust” as a motto and some have even emblazoned the motto on local police squad cars.

Interestingly, in November, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt argued that placing God’s name on coinage and bills was an act of sacrilege and irreverence and it was “eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins.”

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