A motto is defined as an inscribed sentence, phrase or word that describes something’s character, purpose or intended use. Alternatively, a motto is a short expression of a guiding principle. This article uses motto in this latter sense.
"On July 4, 1776, our first Independence Day, the Continental Congress passed a resolution authorizing a committee including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to research and devise a National Motto as well as a seal for their new Nation. On September 9, Congress gave that new Nation a name, calling it the "United States". During that meeting, the motto "E Pluribus Unum" [Out of Many, One] was generally accepted as the Nation's motto, though the official vote did not occur until June 20, 1782 with the adoption of the Great Seal." [http://www.statesymbolsusa.org/National_Symbols/USA_Seal.html]
Therefore, just over two months after declaring its independence, the United States gained its enduring name and a short expression of its guiding principle. As the words “all men are created equal”, have evolved to express human, not male, equality the motto’s meaning has evolved over the years to emphasize unifying the populace rather than just the political subdivisions. Nevertheless, the guiding principle from the outset has been unity and if we are wise, this will be our guide in the present and for the remainder of our national existence.
However, some disturbing developments and emergent trends raise the alarming possibility that we have already forgotten our guiding principle and lost both our sense of purpose and our shared commitment. A motto is not a magical incantation. Whatever the motto says, it cannot conjure its meaning into existence. When powerful people take official action, however, these people and their actions can signal a change of course for the ship of state or they may be indications that the ship is going off course all together.
The first sign of either an official shift in course or a national loss of course happened on July 30, 1956. President Dwight Eisenhower signed a law declaring, "In God We Trust" to be the official motto of the United States. This came just two years after President Eisenhower had pushed to have "under God" inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. The phrase In God We Trust had been on coins since roughly 1864. Prior to 1956, however, it was not legally required and it had no official status.
The second warning sign that the ship of state is either misguided or unguided is the trifling, venal, venomous nature of contemporary political discourse and political practice. Print and broadcast media are obsessed with scandal and salaciousness. Efforts to rig elections through voter suppression, to impede the progress of integration, to stigmatize groups of citizens based on ethnicity and/or religious affiliation are under reported while sensationalistic trivia fills print and broadcast news. Since the Citizens United decision, political candidates and their official actions are available to the highest bidder. Commentators and candidates routinely make the most outrageous and pernicious remarks regarding political opponents even though these comments are often known to be absurd or wholly false. In fact, the most watched cable news network, Faux News, has been cited by Politifact for chronic, outlandish lying. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/22/jon-stewart-fox-news-politifact_n_881998.html for details.
It is ironic perhaps that our civil religion and our political culture are virtually bankrupt just under forty years after "In God We Trust" was signed into law as the official national motto. For 179.75 years our nation's motto and guiding theme was Out of Many, One. During this period, the nation had won its independence, survived a fratricidal war and fought on the winning side in two global wars. It had grown from a struggling experiment into a world power. It had banished the curse of slavery though not the scourge of bigotry. It had awakened from indifference to the downtrodden and heard the first swelling chorus of calls for liberty and justice for all. Then, this principle of unity was subordinated to an expression of confidence in a deity, named but not defined, by the term God.
Although only a youth at the time of this change, I would like to ask retrospectively those who insisted on this change a few questions. Who are we? What or who is God? If the deity is the Supreme Being, why is an official declaration of trust necessary? Would not the Being that knows and sees all be aware of trust from all who feel it? Is the God we trust the God of the Prophets, the God of the Philosophers, the God of Hell Fire, or the God of Love? Does the term We exclude Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, agnostics, atheists, humanists, and others with non-theistic beliefs. Are such people no longer one of US?
While the preeminent monotheistic religions extant today are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and the Baha'i Faith can lay claim to this designation as well. Does each of these diverse monotheists trust in their own conception of the one true God and suspect or fear that of all the others? In this context, let us remember, in many cases, the desire to assert the dominion of the allegedly one and only true God has often lead to violence and intolerance. Nearly 1,000 years ago Christians launched invasions of what we now call the Middle East crying, "God wills it". This ferocious fervor undermined the role of religion as a force for peace and its pernicious influence continues to the present day. What patriotic purpose could possibly be served by stirring the slightest hint of this spirit in our own country? It seems Congressman Peter King of New York is motivated at least in part by a distrust of the Islamic version of the one and only true God that he fears may be "radicalizing American Muslims in prisons." While Steve King of Iowa may trust in God, but seemingly not in the United States Department of Agriculture as he rants against slavery reparations in his mischaracterization of the Pigford cases. Are these two Congressmen seeking to revive the Divine Right of Kings to consign people to the role of outcast?
Perhaps we should consider the comments of the man called, The Father of His Country. "The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy. Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause." It is worth noting that the Constitution specifically forswears religious tests for any office or public trust under the United States. Since 1956, however, the United States has been officially proclaiming publically its Trust in God. Have we concurrently lost trust in our fellow Americans, in the beliefs and values the Founders and Framers sought to bequeath to posterity, and in ourselves?
Again, we should consider the example and words of George Washington. In a congratulating him on his inauguration, the Ministers and Ruling Elders of the Presbytery of Massachusetts and New Hampshire declared, "We should not have been alone in rejoicing to have seen some explicit acknowledgement of THE TRUE ONLY GOD AND JESUS CHRIST whom he has sent, inserted in the Magna Charta of our country."
Washington replied, "I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe, that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation respecting religion from the Magna Charta of our country." Washington believed one's actions spoke thunderously louder than one's words. He sought to demonstrate by repeated example that doing one's duty to the utmost of one's ability was the measure of a man and a patriot. He believed traditional religion should neither intrude on nor dictate to the civil religion of loyalty and service to the Republic he led. Of the five Founding Presidents, only Adams was a congregate, and he was a Unitarian. They discouraged religious, particularly Christian, domination of the new government as much to protect the church as to protect the state. They knew political leaders could use religious rhetoric for secular ends. They knew this because they had done so. To their credit, they used religiously cast pronouncements and proclamations to promote the blossoming of national unity, not to sow the seeds of division. Generally, the Founding Five advocated a respectful, not a condescending, religious toleration, not irreligion. They urged Americans to allow people to hold whatever creed they found worthy and practice such devotions as they chose. In their political or civic lives, however, the Founding Five called for fidelity to the principles, purposes, and promises of the Republic. As the lovely, thirty-two year old English woman, Harriet Martineau, characterized Madison’s inexhaustible faith in the American Republic from her interviews with him, “He embodies the true religion of statesmanship, faith in men and in the principles on which they combine in an agreement to do as they would be done by”. This faith shared by many served our country well in the past, and it can do so now and in the future.
While there was no regulation respecting religion in the Constitution under which Washington assumed the Presidency, there was an explicit set of purposes stated. First among these equals was to "form a more perfect union." This is a less poetic expression of the same principle asserted in Out of Many, One. Foremost in the intentions and injunctions of the Framers, we find unity.
Prior to 1954, American children in public schools at least pledged allegiance to "the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible". Again, the emphasis is on unity. This characteristic is not subordinated; it is the very object of loyalty. Schoolteachers and students had made this pledge since 1923. Prior to that, one pledged allegiance “my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible”. Once again, unity is the focus of one’s pledge and one’s loyalty.
Understand, I am not suggesting that the stipulation of the official motto, In God We Trust, magically caused the fractures and fissures which beset our polity. I am saying this is a symptom and signal of an altered focus. This motto was pushed to official status, as was the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge during the cold war. Many Americans including President Eisenhower were concerned to combat "atheistic Communism". For reasons best known to them, they believed adding token religious references to some public documents and utterances would strengthen these efforts. They should have remembered, "When you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks back into you." By trying to marshal "Christian Soldiers", they struck a blow to our nation's non-sectarian tradition. The reverberations of that blow and the shift in thinking it reflected sent cracks running through our national unity. According to the displaced motto, the guiding principle had been unity, and we, the people, along with our elected officials were responsible for perfecting this unity. From 1956 forward, the guiding principle is asserted to be trust in a deity. Now, I merely suggest we should reclaim our birthright and redouble our efforts to trust in and unite with one another as beneficiaries and guardians of the Republic. In this, I am in harmony with Washington, who asserted, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. For happily the Government of the United States which gives to bigotry no sanction to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”
We are not supplicants. We are sovereigns. If the Republic fails, it will be our fault. People can pursue the religious faith they prefer or pursue no such faith at all. Patriotism asks only that we keep faith with the principles, purposes and the promises of the Republic. The clues to a glorious future for the land of the brave and the home of the free are written in its past. The first clue is the principle that unity is the foundation of and force for anything else. In its original inception, E Pluribus Unum was depicted as a bouquet. It appeared on the annual edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine or Monthly Intelligencer next to a drawing of a hand holding a bouquet of flowers. Unity and individuality flourished together and all were more beautiful for their association with each. We need to let this conception and this commitment bloom again within our hearts and throughout our nation.
“The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society.” Nor does the future belong only to those who are guided by a sectarian creed rather than a patriotic covenant to affirm, advance, and attain “one nation, indivisible with liberty, equity, and prosperity for all.”
Extend your hand. Do not clench your fist. Out of many, we are one! We have come so far; we have seen so much. We have so much more to do! Let us pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. This is our moment; this is our time. Divided we stall, but united we soar. Out of many, we are one!
Let it be!