The separation of church and state became an official doctrine of the United States with the ratification of the Constitution. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights outlines government protection from religious persecution or dominance: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (The Constitution of the United States).
This important piece of legislation is one of the most cited, as it guarantees many of the right Americans hold dear, including the right to practice any faith. Like all of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, the First Amendment was enacted for the benefit of the people, not at their expense. A decade after ratification, Thomas Jefferson elaborated on its significance in a letter to The Danbury Baptists, a religious minority in Connecticut, who complained that the religious freedoms they enjoyed were not seen as natural rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature (Mount).
Jefferson’s response to the group was that the federal government could establish no laws that could be seen as establishing a religion, and used for the first time the phrase “wall of separation between church and state. ” Despite the sentiments of Jefferson, religion and government would clash for the next two hundred years. Religion in the United States continues to play a significant role in the lives of its citizens.
Its effect of the government can be seen on everything from the currency used to the Pledge of Allegiance, often used symbolically to show citizens’ faith during times of doubt. The familiar motto, “In God We Trust” was added to currency during the Civil War because of increased religious sentiment in the country (United States Department of The Treasury). Almost a century later, in 1955 at the height of the cold war, and perhaps a reaction against the atheistic communists of the USSR as opposed to the largely Judeo-Christian US, President Dwight D.
Eisenhower signed Public Law 140 making it mandatory that all currency displays the motto “In God We Trust,” while a law enacted the following year officially replaced the national motto “E Pluribus Unum” with “In God We Trust” (“‘In God We Trust’ — Stamping Out Religion On National Currency”). While few opposed the changes to the currency at the time, as the majority of citizens believe in God, currently many groups find the idea of God placed on American currency to be not only misguided, but offensive to those that do not believe in God.
While non-Christians cite that the God referred to on the money is the Christian god, the phrase does not appear explicitly in the Bible. However, Bible passages do suggest the sentiment: “Trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men” (Timothy: 4-10) and “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (Corinthians 1:9).
From these passages, as well as the religious history of the United States, it becomes hard to believe that the phrase “In God We Trust” is anything but recognition of a Christian mentality. Ironically, it was around this same time, in 1954, that Congress voted to include the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and mandated other laws that expressed religiosity in government, including a statute for all federal justices and judges to swear an oath concluding with “So help me God” (“‘In God We Trust’ — Stamping Out Religion On National Currency”).
From the highest offices to the youngest school children, the federal government subtly infused religion and God into the everyday lives of all Americans, even the ones who did not want it. It was the issue of the Pledge that became an issue recently in the case of Nedow v. United States.