Sago Boulevard

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"In God We Trust"

Having failed to ban reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, Michael Newdow is now trying to remove the phrase "In God We Trust" from our currency. Newdow's explanation as to why is, I think, particularly telling.
"The key principle is that we're supposed to treat everybody equally especially in terms of religious belief," Newdow told KWTV in Oklahoma City. "Clearly it's not treating atheists equal with people who believe in God when you say 'In God We Trust' or we are a 'nation under God."

There are at least two issues that we should be careful not to conflate. One is whether or not "In God We Trust" belongs on our currency. The other is whether or not it is constitutionally permitted to have it on our currency. Obviously, if we say that it is indeed unconstitutional, it follows that we should remove it from our currency. But it doesn't work the other way around. Saying that "In God We Trust" doesn't belong on our currency isn't an argument for its unconstitutionality.

Newdow often intersperses his constitutional argument with a public policy one because, frankly, he needs to. Regarding the phrase's constitutionality, Newdow invokes the Establishment Clause. But what religion is the phrase "In God We Trust" endorsing? Is the phrase taken from any sacred scripture or part of a particular religious tradition? As Bill Vallicella correctly notes:
The exceedingly vague phrase "In God We Trust" does not have the power to establish any religion as the state religion... The vague theism/deism suggested by 'God' in the sentence in question... is not a specific religion. And note that the vagueness is very significant. 'God' can and does mean different things to different people. For the pantheistically inclined, God is nature. For some deists, God is nothing but a cosmic starter-upper. Or 'God' might be a way of referring to ethical ideals.

I'll even go a step further. "In God We Trust" need not be about God at all. It may merely express that the United States sees itself as responding to some great calling. Similarly, the phrase "God only knows", when used to express utter cluelessness is hardly an affirmation of an all-knowing divine being.

As to whether or not "In God We Trust" belongs on our pennies as a matter of public policy is a different issue. Despite the vagueness of the phrase, many may still feel excluded on account of their differing beliefs. If that's the case, a bill ought to be proposed to remove it and the Democracy will rule. But it has nothing to do with the Establishment Clause.