The motto of the United States violates either the First Amendment or the Third Commandment. Which is it?
There has been a rash of sheriffs and police chiefs around the country putting “In God We Trust” stickers on their vehicles. Whether their intention is to pander to the religious, give a giant middle finger to non-believers, or both differs from case to case. Each time they do so, they risk exposing their department to expensive litigation.
The sad part is there IS precedent supporting the legality of the “In God We Trust.” In Aronow vs. The United States1 the trial court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the use of “In God We Trust” on coins for lack of standing, which in layman’s terms means that the plaintiff has no legal interest in bringing the suit. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit not only affirmed the dismissal for lack of standing, but also addressed the merits of the case. This was unusual because courts rarely rule on constitutional matters if they don’t have to. Perhaps the Christian bias of the court at the time left them eager to defend their privilege.
The court explained their rationale for upholding the constitutionality of the phrase.
In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet Congress has directed such uses. While ‘ceremonial’ and ‘patriotic’ may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact.2
There is a more succinct way to put the court’s reasoning. “We may say ‘In God We Trust’, but we don’t really claim confidence in a divine being.” It’s just a phrase like “Have a nice day.” “How are you doing?” “Namaste.” These are nothing more than meaningless idioms. “In God We Trust”, in the words of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”3
The legal term for this is “Ceremonial Deism.” I prefer to call it “intellectual dishonesty” if I am feeling charitable; “bullshit” if I am not. Andrew Seidel recently listed other examples of courts engaging in similar legalistic tap-dances.4
It seems proponents of the Ceremonial Deism doctrine have never set foot in Mississippi. People here are staunch Christians, and if they say “In God We Trust” they mean it — or at least think that they do.
Perhaps in the context of law enforcement these courts are correct. After all, would our police need guns and Kevlar vests if they really trusted a god? Why bother patrolling dangerous areas if people could rely on the almighty to keep them safe? Why not wander the neighborhood and pray away the burglars and meth labs, like a tribal shaman marking a perimeter with chicken blood to keep out evil spirits. Heck, Jackson, Mississippi’s police chief specifically credited prayer with a drop in crime, yet his officers use real bullets.5
However, if the Ceremonial Deist position is correct – if “In God We Trust” is just a trite expression with no religious significance – then doesn’t it violate the Third Commandment by taking the Christian god’s name in vain?
I’ll admit interpreting the Bible is even trickier than the Constitution. We at least have courts who will make binding rulings on the latter. The Christian god – either because of nonexistence or apathy – has yet to clarify anything in the former. However, some theists’ understanding of the Third Commandment support Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that the motto is blasphemous.6 Consider this explanation from Pastor Mark Driscoll.
[I]t’s using God’s name and therefore projecting and presenting God in a fashion of emptiness, falsehood, triviality, lightness, or inconsequentiality. He doesn’t even matter.7
Another Christian website phrases it this way:
The term vain is a synonym for futile; thus, the Third Commandment is warning us not to use God’s name in a futile or trivial manner.8
And another interprets the commandment thusly:
“[V]ain” means emptiness or worthlessness. So to take God’s name in vain means to empty his name of content or to make it irrelevant. Taking God’s name in vain would mean any empty, frivolous or insincere use of God’s name.9
If the motto “has no theological or ritualistic impact,” then by definition it makes the Christian god irrelevant. If Justice Brennan is correct, isn’t he acknowledging that God is inconsequential? Is there anything more trivial than a cop slapping a Bible verse on his bumper with full knowledge he will rely on his gun and taser more than prayer and scripture for protection? And why aren’t more Christians outraged that the courts flippantly dismiss sincere professions of faith with little more than a “Bazinga”?
Christians should no longer be allowed to have it both ways. Either they mean it when they say “In God We Trust,” in which case the motto is a blatant government endorsement of religion. Or they don’t mean it, in which case they are committing blasphemy. Regardless, it would seem that fear of their god’s wrath, if not fear of costly legal battles, would prompt them to stop it. Their holy book threatens dire consequences to those who misuse the Christian god’s moniker.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.10
No doubt pandering theists will continue to plaster “In God We Trust” over every smooth surface they can reach. Reasserting Christian privilege is an easy way to score political points, and slapping a bumper sticker on a car or a sign on a wall doesn’t require any thought or effort. I’ll leave those folks with one more idiom: Have fun in court, or have fun in hell.
1 432 F.2d 242 (9th Cir. October 6, 1970).
2 Id. at 243.
3 Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). (Dissenting)
10 Exodus 20:7 (NIV)