In God We Trust In Fact Checking

The other day I ended up at Rogers Cadenhead’s DrudgeRetort.Com site and saw a story that piqued my interest — the Supreme Court this week refused to hear a case involving whether or not the presence of “In God We Trust” on money is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause.

The comments thread was annoying, however, because there were many folks claiming that the “In God We Trust” motto did not start appearing on money until the 1950s. The implication being that its not an old tradition in the United States, but a latecomer that doesn’t deserve the deference that an older tradition might. Unfortunately, that claim is off by about 90 years.

As this Treasury Department history notes, “In God We Trust” first appeared on coins in 1864. An 1837 act of Congress had prescribed what mottoes could appear on coins, and the 1864 Coinage Act gave the Treasury Secretary the authority to approve the design of coins. Shortly afterward, “In God We Trust” appeared on the two-cent coin.

“In God We Trust” has appeared continuously on the penny since 1909, and on the dime since 1916.

So what happened in the 1950s that makes people think its only started appearing on money then? Eisenhower signed a bill in 1956 that put the motto on paper money as well. “In God We Trust” first appeared on paper money in 1957.

A number of atheist sites such as this one and programs such as this falsely claim that “In God We Trust” didn’t start appearing on money at all until the 1950s and that the motto itself is of very recent origin. Apparently, there is a right wing Christian myth as well that the motto’s use goes back to American Revolutionary times, but I could not find any instances of people actually making that claim (though there are enough quotes falsely attributed to famous figures of that time period to fill a small book).

Leaving aside the historical trivia, what about the substantive issue — is the minting of “In God We Trust” on money just one step away from a theocracy in the United States as some of the shriller atheists imply?

I take the opposite view — as an atheist, I can’t imagine a better place for the motto than on the nation’s money. In this, I agree with President Theodore Roosevelt’s opinion that the motto’s appearance on money was close to sacrilegious and that “it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.”

Exactly. If anything, America’s official state religion is capitalism and what greater way to reinforce that by put religious mottoes on money of all places. And certainly what Roosevelt predicted has come to past — “In God We Trust” is, I suspect, a meaningless phrase to many people (much like “E Pluribus Unum” or “So Help Me God” when being sworn in at court) because of its sheer repetition and commonality. It is on the penny after all, which certainly demonstrates the poor currency of the phrase.


The U.S. National [sic] Mottos. ReligiousTolerance.Org, Accessed: November 19, 2005.

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