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Signs of the Times  •  18 February 2016  •  No. 59

Special themed issue: “In God We Trust”
God as national mascot
Divine patronage asserted

Processional. “Star Spangled Banner,” Jimi Hendrix.

The Angel Oak Tree (right), on Johns Island near Charleston, SC, is estimated to be 400-500 years old. It is 66.5 feet tall, has a circumference of 28 feet, and its longest branch measures 187 feet in length.

Call to worship. “Star Spangled Banner,” Lady Gaga.

Invocation. “O, Lord, we are about to join battle with a vastly superior number of the enemy, and, Heavenly Father, we would mightily like for you to be on our side and help us. But if You can't do it, for Christ's sake don't go over to the Mexicans, but just lay low and keep in the dark, and You will see one of the dangest fights you've ever seen. Charge!" — Captain Jack Hays of the Texas Rangers during the Mexican-American War, shortly before leading his troops into battle at Palo Alto, near the modern-day town of Brownsville, Texas.

Intercession—A Lenten love song, from the church to God. “Hug me, squeeze me, love me, tease me / Till I can't, till I can't, till I can't take no more of it / Take me to the water, drop me in the river / Push me in the water, drop me in the river / Washing me down, washing me down.” —“Take Me to the River,” written by Al Green and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, performed here by Syl Johnson

Confession. “Day of judgment, God is calling / On their knees the war pig's crawling / Begging mercy for their sins / Satan laughing spreads his wings / oh lord yeah!” —“War Pigs,” Black Sabbath, performed by First Aid Kit

Words of assurance. “When I come to die, / When I come to die, / When I come to die, / Give me Jesus.” —“Give Me Jesus,” a cappella rendition by the Apex High School chorus


God-promotion is a recurring theme in US history, both as a response to declining confidence in the state of the nation and as an ideological struggle against enemies. What follows is a bit of background.

Sheriffs in Rutherford County, NC, are but the latest to sport “In God We Trust” bumper stickers on their cruisers—in this case, donated by a local church. “Sheriff Chris Francis wanted to use the decals as a way of showing patriotism.” Similar measures have taken place in several states, and several states now have license plates with "In God We Trust" inscribed. (For more background, see Elahe Izadi’s “Why officers are putting ‘In God We Trust’ bumper stickers on their patrol cars”  and Ken Paulson’s “When police embrace ‘In God We Trust’" commentary.

“In God We Trust” was adapted from the last stanza of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which says, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’”

President Theodore Roosevelt disapproved of the motto’s appearance on coins. In The New York Times on 14 November 1907, he wrote, “My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.”

The US Mint stamped selected coins with “In God We Trust” during the Civil War when God’s patronage of the Union was at stake.
        The Reverend M. R. Watkinson, in a letter dated November 13, 1861, petitioned the Treasury Department to add a statement recognizing ‘Almighty God in some form in our coins" in order to "relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.’ At least part of the motivation was to declare that God was on the Union side in the Civil War. —see Wikipedia for more background

God-promotion got seriously underway in the 1930s as a way of opposing US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation. Following World War II, the movement expanded greatly—with what the courts have ruled “ceremonial deism,” encouraging school children’s “love of country,” and serving “commercial interests”—when the Soviet Union and its officially-atheistic constitution became Enemy No. 1. —See Kevin M. Kruse’s detailed documentation in his book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.

Gott mit uns ("God with us") is a phrase inscribed on German soldiers’ belt buckles in World War II and commonly used on armor in the German military from the German Empire to the end of the Third Reich, although its historical origins are far older. The Imperial Russian motto, "Съ нами Богъ!" ("S nami Bog!"), also translates the same.

¶ "In God we trust. On Marines we rely." —anonymous

Reference to “In God We Trust” was a central element to the plot of the 1994 version of the film Miracle on 34th Street. In the final scenes of the movie, the judge decides that, since the Department of the Treasury can have faith in God with no hard evidence, the State of New York can have faith in Santa Claus with no hard evidence as well.

“In God we trust. All others we virus scan.” —anonymous

¶ “By April 1953 US Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield found his office buried beneath an avalanche of letters and telegrams from citizens demanding the words “In God We Trust” appear on new stamps. . . . “ The phrase “had appeared once before on a 1928 stamp, which celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Valley Forge encampment with an image—quite familiar to cold warriors—of Washington kneeling in prayer. . . .” By 1954 “the Postal Service unveiled a new eight-cent stamp [the price of international postage at the time] bearing the motto in a red arch over an image of the Statue of Liberty. . . . Over 200 million ‘In God We Trust’ stamps would carry letters around the world each year, a ‘beacon of hope and opportunity to oppressed peoples everywhere,’ as Summerfield put it. —Jonathan P. Herzog, The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America’s Religious Battle Against Communism in the Early Cold War

The phrase “under God” wasn’t added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. By the way, some interesting history: The U.S. Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Rev. Francis Bellamy, a Baptist pastor and leading advocate of socialism.

In 1955 Congress approved a second national motto, “In God We Trust,” to stand beside the original, “E Pluribus Unum” (“out of many, one”). Some deny that “E Pluribus Unum” was the nation’s motto since it was not explicitly approved as such by an act of Congress—though Congress did approve the Great Seal of the US, on which the phrase appears.

In 1957 “In God We Trust” was added to all US currency.

The “National Prayer Breakfast” (originally, a "Presidential Prayer Breakfast") tradition of bringing together political leaders began in 1953, by Abraham Vereide, who also founded, in 1935, the secretive “Fellowship” (aka “The Family” and “The International Foundation”) as one form of opposition to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation and, since then, in support of laissez-faire economic policy (which, currently, is the meaning behind most public use of the word freedom).

“In God we trust. All others pay cash.” —anonymous

¶ “In 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled (Engel v. Vitale) that government-directed prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, the Senate Judiciary Committee proposed three constitutional Amendments to protect prayer in the schools. The Cold War setting for the hearings was obvious. Virginia Senator A. Willis Robertson said that, without the Amendments, ‘there will be no material difference between our Government and that imposed upon the Soviet Union by the Politburo.’” —For more information on the use of “so help me God” in oaths of office, see David B. Parker,  “‘So Help Me God’ and the Presidential Oath,” History News Network.

In 1970 the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals (Aronow v. United States, challenging the constitutionality of having “In God We Trust” on US currency) ruled that the phrase “in God we trust” has no “religious significance,” and its meaning is reduced to “spiritual and psychological value” of a certain “inspirational quality.” Citing an earlier court decision (Engel v. Vitale, 1962), the court affirmed that prayer in public schools and other “patriotic and ceremonial” occasions are merely an encouragement of school children “to express love for our country.”

The US Fifth Circuit Court (Madalyn Murray O’Hair v. W. Michael Blumenthal, 1979) claims that the "primary purpose of the slogan [‘In God We Trust’] was secular."

The phrase “ceremonial deism” was first coined by then-dean of Yale Law School Eugene Rostow and first used in a Supreme Court decision by Justice Brennan’s dissenting opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984, saying that such expressions are “protected from Establishment Clause [referring to the First Amendment to the US Constitution] scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

In that same Supreme Court case, which involved the constitutionality of a courthouse Christmas nativity scene in Pawtucket, RI, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that the practice "engenders a friendly community spirit" and "serves the commercial interests" of the merchants.

“In God we trust. All others will be audited.” —anonymous

Just to be sure, Congress has on three separate occasions in recent years reaffirmed “In God We Trust” as the nation’s motto. In 2002 the House of Representatives approved a new law that said the old law (Section 302, Title 36, US Code) should not be changed! In 2006 the Senate reaffirmed “the concept embodied in the motto.” Then, in 2011, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) made the motion to reaffirm, again, “In God We Trust” as the nation’s motto and encourage its display in all public schools and government buildings, saying Americans need “that kind of inspiration” in tough economic times.

Default piety. “I couldn’t think of any new prayers, so I just said the Pledge of Allegiance instead.” —“The Family Circus” cartoon character Dolly, to her mother at bedtime

Lenten piety for the impious. “There’s a raucousness to God, in God, of God, by God, / that the orderly mind cannot abide. . . .” —continue reading Ken’s Sehested’s poem, “Raucous: God’s mutiny against Lenten tedium and patriotic pablum,” particularly if Lenten piety gets wearisome or politicians’ God-promotion makes atheism an attractive option

Hymn of praise.Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” the “Navy Hymn,” performed here by the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters.

"Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” —British political essayist Samuel Johnson, 1774

Preach it. “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” —Jesus, repeating a statement from the prophet Isaiah (Mark 7:6, Matt. 15:8; cf. Is. 29:13)

Lectionary for Sunday next. “The Maître D’ of Heaven commands the ’poverished-poor to table: the halt and helpless, lamed and maimed ushered up for honored seating. The Beloved’s steadfast love is like a lip-smacking feast of abundance. But the Market’s squaloring famine sows the seeds of violent harvest.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Maître D’ of Heaven,” a litany for worship

Call to the table—on the now-common habit of politicians’ speech-ending refrain of “God bless America.”
       "Of the 41 appearances [in the New Testament] of the Greek verb eulogeoo (literally 'speaking a good word'), only twice do we find it in the imperative mood. In neither case does it involve God. It does, however, involve us. In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Plain he invites his disciples to 'Bless those who curse you' (Luke 6:28). These instructions are later echoed by the apostle Paul: 'Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse' (Rom 12:14). —Ched Myers, “Mixed Blessing: A Biblical Inquiry into a ‘Patriotic’ Cant

Just for fun.Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” by Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers.

Benediction. “Tell me where is the road I can call my own, / That I left, that I lost, so long ago. / All these years I have wondered, oh when will I know, / There's a way, there's a road that will lead me home.”  —“The Road Home,” Stephen Paulus, performed by Conspirare (click the “show more” button to see the lyrics)

Recessional. "My country could use a little mercy now.“ Mercy Now,” Mary Gauthier

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks:

• “Raucous: God’s mutiny against Lenten tedium and patriotic pablum,” particularly if Lenten piety gets wearisome or politician’s God-promotion makes atheism a viable option

• “Maître D’ of Heaven,” a litany for worship

Resources for Lent

• “Fasting: Ancient practice, modern relevance

• “Wilderness: Lenten preparation: A collection of biblical texts that speak of wilderness

• “Lent is upon us,” liturgy readings for Lent

• “Deepening the Call: A wilderness fast opposing a “Desert Storm,” a Lenten essay protesting the 1991 Gulf War

Linocut art at right by Julie Lonneman.

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