OPINION: State and Religion are (Not) Separate
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
On the sixty-fifth anniversary of Eisenhower requiring the phrase "In God We Trust” be place on the U.S. dollar bill, we should look back on not only the history of religion in the context of the government of the United States, but also how religion has shaped the foundations of our nation.
From our very conception within the The Declaration of Independence, Judeo-Christian tradition has heavily influenced the forming of America.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
This set a foundational culture and precedent based off of these ideals and principles early on in our national history. These effects and traditions are still seen today with the famous "so help me God" phrase in the many U.S. oaths of office. Marsh v. Chambers held up this precept when the decision held government funding of chaplains for court was constitutional based on the "unique history" of the United States.
So, if the government can give funding to state-sponsored chaplains for legal purposes, then based on our "unique history”, keeping references to God on the money should also remain protected.
Moreover, from a constitutional standpoint, this fully aligns with the First Amendment. The Amendment, which states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...
Some argue "In God We Trust" respects an establishment of religion, and would thus violate the First Amendment. Simply put, it doesn't.
The decision of Aronow v. United States determined the phrase was not respecting an establishment of religion and thus was able to be used as a national motto and on currency. The usage was deemed ceremonial and bears no true resemblance to a sponsorship of religion.
Similarly, many criticize the inclusion of the phrase “Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance for a similar reason reflective of removing references to God on the currency. President Eisenhower added the phrase in the early days of the Cold War, as he believed that reinforcing Judeo-Christian values in America would enable the nation to rally against the major threat at the time: Communism and its inlaid atheism. To this end, it did have its political connotations.
Yet, these decisions and years of tradition still have not dissuaded people from attempting to overturn this apparent controversy. Micheal Newdow, for example, sued his daughter's School District, Elk Grove Unified School District, in the early 2000's for "endorsing religion". In 2004 the Supreme Court upheld the traditions established at the founding of our nation and the decision of Aronow v. United States.
For the time being, references to religion and an unspecified God on currency and in schools is legal and does not violate any constitutional right. Given the outcomes of recent attempts, it is clear that the institutions of “church" and "state" are not as separate as we may generally believe them to be in the United States.
Nevertheless, this is not inherently a bad thing; The United States is a country founded upon religious ideals, with religious ideals integrated throughout our core values, our traditions, and our government, that still does not give religion alone a central or dictatorial role in American society.
Andrew Fielden is an Editor-at-Large for the National Times