In God We (Don’t) Trust

This is the first of 4 sermon starters for July 4th weekend. Preachers are free to use them. In each sermon, I endeavor to interpret this moment in the nation’s life in light of both the nation’s value claims and Christian scriptures.

I ran for the cross country team my first year in college, until my knees pleaded “no more.” I remember running against Wheaton College, the school made famous by Billy Graham. All the teams brought locks for their use of guest lockers—except for Wheaton. The Wheaton harriers placed a Bible on top of their valuables. While the rest of us trusted in MasterLock, the Wheaton team trusted in God (or, at least, that the guilt a would-be thief incurs while moving the Bible to get to the valuables would be sufficient to stop the act). To this day, to secure a locker, I’ll choose a lock over a Bible.

What does it mean for a nation to “trust in God”? Not for a church. Not for a cross country team. Not for an individual or a family, but for a nation to trust in God.

The American claim embedded in “In God We Trust” puzzles me. Some people see our official national motto as an aspiration, as a place we desire to be.

I can’t go there. I am categorically suspicious of any nation’s claim to trust in God. When a nation connects itself to God and claims to operate out of trust in God, I keep my eyes pealed for how God is held captive to the nation’s ambitions.

The history of the motto makes the claim suspect for me, too. Northern preachers importuned Lincoln to add God to the Constitution, just as the Confederates had done to their governing constitution. Lincoln, steeped in biblical knowledge, with a keen sense of the Hebrew prophets, knew that neither side of the war could or should claim God was on their side, for “the Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln sees hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed and can’t see the truth of “in God we trust.” So, he agrees for the motto to be minted on a coin, the 2-cent coin. On money. Was Lincoln doing this tongue-in-cheek or even sarcastically? Placing the words on a symbol of mammon? (Harry Stout’s excellent book, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, addresses this topic.)

The motto was not officially adopted until 1956. At that time, the U.S. employed an array of Cold War weapons against the Soviet regime, including words. The U.S. was a godly nation. The Soviets were Marxist-Leninist atheists. The adopted motto was weaponized to distinguish us from them. At the same time, we and they were building and installing nuclear weapons of sufficient power and quantity to “make the rubble bounce,” to bring about a human-made end of the world that God made.

In God we trust?

Our nation’s defense budget is far larger than any other nation, by a multiple of three. In God we trust, or in Lockheed Martin?

Collectively, we own about 400 million guns, more than one per every human being in the 50 states. In God we trust, or do we trust in Ruger and Smith & Wesson?

What does trust in God mean in the most heavily armed nation—for the most heavily armed civilian population—on the planet?

The U.S. is still locked in battle with Russia, but we no longer employ “In God We Trust” against them. Now, we use the motto as a weapon for a civil war. Why are lawmakers in so many states, including Oklahoma, mandating that the national motto be placed in every classroom? And why are we religious people who are suspicious of a government claiming God on high alert for turning the nation into either a church or a deity? My hunch is because we smell the gunpowder of God being weaponized.

I am fundamentally uncertain as to what it means for a nation to trust in God. In which God do we claim to trust? A Christian God, whatever that means? Would that be the loving version or the quick-draw punishing version? A god who is in control at all times? A god who will make all things right? A god who will clean up all our messes, regardless of how irresponsible we are? A god who is the source of love, truth, goodness and beauty? A god who will bless what America blesses and curse those whom America curses?

Certainly these are not the God of the classical Hebrew prophets or of the Sermon on the Mount.

Trusting in God might be closely related to doing what God asks. “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, CEB)

I can’t imagine a humble walk, a just walk, a loving walk when burdened with tons and tons of armaments, guns, prison cells, and all else that points to trusting in some other god than the one in which we claim to trust.

It is time to get honest about the national motto and ditch it. Or, repent and turn.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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