In God We Trust

Topics: Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt Pages: 19 (6813 words) Published: May 15, 2013
[PT 12.4 (2011) 594-607] doi:10.1558/poth.v12i4.594

Political Theology (print) ISSN 1462-317X Political Theology (online) ISSN 1473-1719

In God We TrusT: AbrAhAm LIncoLn And AmerIcA’s deAThbed repenTAnce Justin J. Latterell1 Graduate Division of Religion Emory University S214 Callaway Memorial Center 537 Kilgo Circle Atlanta, Georgia 30322 USA

This article maps several key moments in the evolution of religious symbolism and language on US currency, focusing largely on Abraham Lincoln’s overlooked role in signing the motto “In God We Trust” into law. Interpreting the motto through the lens of Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address”—which he delivered just one day after Congress passed the first statute allowing “In God We Trust” to be stamped on US coins—offers a counter-intuitive interpretation of the motto that functions as a deep, ironic, and historically significant critique of religious nationalism. Keywords: Abraham Lincoln; civil religion; civil war; coinage; nationalism; pluralism; political authority; political theology; US history.

“In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States, and one of three mottoes on every coin and bill currently issued by the US Mint. Art historians have described coins as politics in miniature. Stamped with symbolic images, numbers, and words, coins don’t merely function as a medium of economic exchange—they project idealized symbols of 1. Justin Latterell is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion, Emory University. His research focuses on ethics and the intersections of religion, law and politics in the United States. The author wishes to express his debt and gratitude to the late Rev. Dr. Forrest Church (1948–2009) for inspiring and initiating the broader research project to which this article belongs. His keen insights, wit and generous friendship are dearly missed. See F. Forrester Church, So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State (Orlando: Harcourt, 2007). © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2011, Unit S3, Kelham House, 3 Lancaster Street, Sheffield, S3 8AF.

Latterell In God We Trust


political and moral authority. This article explores some of the ways that the contested symbols on American coins have embodied and perhaps even shaped Americans’ political and religious ideals. The founding period, the American Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Cold War play well-documented roles in this story.2 I pay special attention, however, to Abraham Lincoln, and to his almost entirely overlooked connection with the motto “In God We Trust.” Lincoln’s role in the motto’s inception is significant. For, unlike most contemporary interpretations, a Lincolnian interpretation of “In God We Trust” functions as a deep critique of religious nationalism. Scene 1: Liberty Cuts George Washington’s Head Off (the Coins) When Congress took up legislation to establish a national mint in the early months of 1792, a motley collection of native- and foreign-struck coins was already in circulation. These coins depicted everything from sunrises to ploughs, horse-heads, female liberty figures, thirteen-link chains, and more. Their inscriptions (or “legends”) were nearly as diverse. For all of their differences, however, most native-struck coins differed from their British counterparts in one key respect: British currency was a tribute to the divine reign of the current monarch. One side of British coins usually depicted a royal coat of arms. The other side showed a bust of the king (or queen) with his name inscribed next to the Latin phrase “Dei GrAtiA rex” (King by God’s Grace).3 In his annual report to Congress in 1792, Alexander Hamilton explained, “The devices of Coins are far from being matters of indifference, as they may be made the vehicles of useful impressions. They ought therefore to be emblematical, but without losing sight of simplicity.”4 Hamilton proposed a simple, motto-less design for US...
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