The Real Meaning of 'In God We Trust' | Opinion

As children in Texas begin a new school year, many will notice posters with our national motto, "In God We Trust," prominently displayed in classrooms. This follows a recent Texas law requiring public schools to display posters of our national motto in a conspicuous place in the school building. State Senator Bryan Hughes, co-author of the law, tweeted that the national motto "asserts our collective trust in a sovereign God."

Regardless of the seemingly benign nature of the law, whenever "God" is mentioned in the public square, one can assume some groups will oppose it. These opponents invariably take the stance that a public invocation of God is a violation of so-called "separation of church and state," and thus an attempt to impose religion—more specifically, conservative Christianity—on the population. Critics of the Texas law include the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition, which voiced how "disturbed" it was with the "intrusion" of Christianity in the classroom. Another group, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, went so far as to say that Texas was "codifying white Christian nationalist patriarchy into law." A Florida-based activist group even started a GoFundMe to donate posters with the motto written in Arabic, presumably to counter and protest the alleged Christianization.

In reality, this is far from the first time such a law has been advanced in the U.S., and similar legislation has often received bipartisan support. In Louisiana, for example, it was a Democratic governor who signed the state's 2019 bill, which also requires the national motto to be displayed in all schools.

While discussion about what role God and religion should play in public life is valid and important, the criticisms of the Texas law are overblown. Evidence for this can be gleaned from the fact that some organizations that are a very far cry from Christian conservatism are welcoming the new initiative. A spokesperson for CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Guardian that, "Trusting God is common across faiths," and that "the posters can foster discussions among Texas students about their various faiths and enhance understanding." This is the correct perspective. In a culture that boldly promotes every other value, ideology, and lifestyle, giving the idea of trust in God some extra visibility will even out the playing field, at minimum—and likely be outright salutary.

From its earliest days, the United States has been a nation of faith. As President John Adams famously noted: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Whether it is an early draft of the Great Seal of the United States, which depicts Moses parting the Red Sea, or the Liberty Bell, with has a verse from the Book of Leviticus engraved upon it, the role of biblical values in the American Founding is indisputable—and the success of the American experiment, moreover, is undergirded by a Judeo-Christian worldview.

USA dollars bills in God we trust
Bills with "In God We Trust," 29 December 2014 Francis Dean/Corbis via Getty Images

As far as the supposed violation of the "separation of church of state," while Congress is prohibited from enacting a national religion, the Constitution says nothing about banishing religion from the public square or having religious ideas influence American culture. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who coined the term "wall of separation between church and state," regularly attended church services in the Hall of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol. The so-called "wall of separation" isn't quite as impenetrable as one might imagine.

The national motto, "In God We Trust," has likewise been conceptually present since the country's inception. It was originally present in the last stanza of what became our national anthem, was later added to U.S. currency during the Civil War, and was eventually codified as the official national motto during the 1950s.

What is the practical meaning that we can derive from this phrase, and its being displayed prominently? The most notable part of the expression is that its focus is on "trust," which is distinct from the idea of "belief" in God. The English language offers a variety of words to express the idea of faith. "Trust" is not merely an abstract belief, but a focus on tangible application. Mere "belief," by contrast, can be theoretical.

A burglar can pray to God for help before robbing a home. His prayer would purportedly indicate that he believes in God, but the fact that he has resorted to theft proves that he does not trust God in his life. His beliefs, that is, have not actually influenced his behavior. Trusting God doesn't mean that one merely thinks about God—it means that one actually lives a pious life. Our specific religious beliefs are not nearly as important as how we live our lives in accordance with our professed values.

Action is the key distinction, and what matters most in governing a country is to elevate both the mindset and behavior of the citizenry. Having our national motto displayed on our currency demonstrates that we trust God in all matters of life—spiritual as well as material. And hanging this idea prominently in our schools reminds students of the necessary foundation in creating the next generation of a moral society.

Rabbi Pinchas Taylor is founder of "The Ark," a Hebrew Bible study and coaching program.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.