HIST 1700: American Civilization

For the American Institutions requirement, I chose to take American Civilization which covers American History from the Pre-Columbian period to the present. This course provides a thorough examination of the major social, political, and economic events, issues, and themes of the period. For our signature assignment, I wrote an essay researching the origins of three mentions of deity in American history and answering Dr. Randa’s questions for each subject.

In God We Trust on money

The phrases: “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” and “Endowed by their Creator,” are all familiar references to the deity. The first is stamped on our currency, the second is recited in the Pledge of Allegiance and the third appears in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. While it might be argued that each is proof of our country’s dedication to the all-seeing, all-mighty divinity, the actual historical context of these phrases would indicate that each is more the product of the time in which it was used than an invocation or prayer to God.

 Part 1: “In God We Trust”

During the first part of the nineteenth century, religious fervor swept the nation in all directions. From the Library of Congress’ online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, “The religion of the new American republic was evangelicalism, which, between 1800 and the Civil War, was the “grand absorbing theme” of American religious life.”1 Gatherings, also known as Revivals, attracted large sums of people and ultimately led to the Second Great Awakening. In Give Me Liberty! An American History, Eric Foner stated that, “The Second Great Awakening democratized American Christianity, making it a truly mass enterprise.”2

Eventually, this provocation of nation-wide Christianity led to the idea to add the motto “In God We Trust” to United States money in November 1861.  The Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, “received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country, urging that the United States recognize the Deity on United States coins.”3 After receiving one such letter, Secretary Chase directed the Mint at Philadelphia to create a motto, but it was not until the Coinage Act of 1864 passed in Congress on April 22, 1864, that the phrase was legally added to coins.

Less than a hundred years later, on July 30, 1956, amidst perceived threats of an atomic bomb during The Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law into effect  that made the phrase “In God We Trust,” our nation’s official motto. Frank Lambert, Professor of History at Purdue University, articulated,

“It was in that environment, with this cold war, that Congress decided that “In God We Trust” should be the new motto, reclaiming this notion that we’re a chosen people and that we were conceived under God and that we flourish under God, and we turn our backs on God at our own peril.”4

In 1957, a year after law P.L. 84-140 went into effect, the first paper money stating “In God We Trust” was printed.

 Part 2: “Under God”

In the first half of the twentieth century, as Americans survived their way through the Great Depression and World War II, churches as a whole, experienced a downturn in church service attendance. From the book, The Culture of the Cold War, author Stephen J. Whitfield notes that, “Church membership rose from only 43% of the U.S. population in 1920 to a peak of 69% by 1960. It fell back to 63% by 1970. A 1954 survey showed that 9 out of 10 Americans believed in the divinity of Christ. During the Cold War years religion was seen by many as playing an important role in the struggle against Communism.”5

In 1949, Rev. Billy Graham, an Evangelist, held a rally at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles saying, “…We cannot stand the tremendous strain and stress of future days in our battle with Communism unless we have a spiritual revival! 6 Soon thereafter, William Randolph Hearst heard the message that Rev. Graham was proclaiming and quickly elevated his status within his own media control. This afforded Graham many opportunities, one of which led to him meeting presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower and Rev. Billy Graham met, Graham discovered that not only had this presidential candidate never been baptized in any religious denomination, but also that Mrs. Eisenhower was a Presbyterian. Rev. Graham suggested that Eisenhower join his wife’s church which in fact he did soon after becoming President. In the PBS Series God In America, Sarah Barringer Gordon, Historian of Law and Religion at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, narrated,

“It was at the New York Avenue Presbyterian church that Eisenhower heard a sermon on adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and from that day forward became an advocate of including the new words. After Eisenhower got behind it, after it got some publicity, the public was so overwhelmingly in favor.”7

On June 14, 1954, Flag Day, school children across America began to relearn and recite the updated Pledge of Allegiance. New York Times writer David E. Rosenbaum recalled, “In the ceremony when he signed the legislation, President Eisenhower said, “”From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.””8

Part 3: “Endowed by their Creator”

                At the end of the eighteenth century, following the American Revolution, the earliest of the phrases referenced is found in Thomas Jefferson’s immortal lines in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, “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.”

The phrase as written appears to be less a claim for the existence of divinity than an assertion of human rights. While Thomas Jefferson was a theist and believed in a “creator,” he was not “religious” in the sense of belonging to or adhering to a religion. From the book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, “Like many churchgoers, he was always able to tune out points of doctrine with which he disagreed. He remained a Deist in rejecting the rituals and sacraments of institutional religion as the proper forum for worship. For Jefferson, true worship consisted of love and tolerance for human beings according to the ethical teachings of Jesus.”9

In fact, “endowed by their Creator,” does not specify who or what “The Creator” might be. In a letter to Ezra Stiles Ely written on June 25, 1819, Jefferson wrote, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”10 Out of the Enlightenment Period, beliefs of reason arose, rather than a reliance on devotion to religion singularly and an understanding of the humanity and natural world as the “Creator” had made it. What Jefferson asserted over all else were the rights of man. He was a product of his age and a beneficiary of the enlightenment of a generation before.

In conclusion, as many times as deity is mentioned throughout the course of United States history, these phrases “In God We Trust” and “Under God” like other phrases are artifacts of that history. The Declaration of Independence is one of the first artifacts of our American history. At times, we see resurgence in the use of these artifacts such as what happened in the days, weeks, months, and now years after the events of September 11, 2001. Author Lee Canipe wrote, “Over a year later, the Stars and Stripes continue to be in vogue, to say the least. Countless billboards and bumper stickers, often with the flag as a backdrop, declare the United States to be “One Nation, Under God.” Meanwhile, the stirring refrain of the patriotic invocation “God Bless America” echoes in the collective national consciousness, whether it be sung by members of Congress on the steps of the Capitol, played by marching bands during football halftime shows, or proclaimed by ministers in churches across the nation.”11 Our country has a collection of artifacts that have unified Americans during times of revolution, meaningful patriotism, and throughout wars. 

 Citations

1 James H. Hutson, “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” (Online Exhibition), 2007, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel07.html

2 Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History (4th Ed.) (United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), 269.

3 U.S. Department of the Treasury: http://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx

4 Lambert, Frank. God In America, (Episode 5) “Soul of a Nation.” TV Series. Co-production of American Experience and FRONTLINE, 2010. http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-five.html

5 Stephen J. Whitfield. The Culture of the Cold War. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

6 Graham, Rev. Billy. God In America, (Episode 5) “Soul of a Nation.” TV Series. Co-production of American Experience and FRONTLINE, 2010. http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-five.html

7 Gordon, Sarah Barrington. God In America, (Episode 5) “Soul of a Nation.” TV Series. Co-production of American Experience and FRONTLINE, 2010. http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-five.html

8 David E. Rosenbaum, “With Little Ado, Congress Put God in Pledge in 1954,” New York Times, June 28, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/28/us/with-little-ado-congress-put-god-in-pledge-in-1954.html

9 David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 85.

10 “Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs,” in Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs, October 8, 2014

11 Lee Canipe, “Under God and Anti-Communist: How the Pledge of Allegiance Got Religion in Cold War America,” Journal of Church and State 45, 2 (2003): 305

In Anthropology and Geology, it is said that the past is the key to the present. This class gave me much more perspective on how our past presently effects Americans and our culture today. I had always wondered how our country, a nation founded on religious freedom could almost hypocritically exclaim words in “God’s” name on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. What I took away from this assignment was more that our leaders, during times of crisis, chose to make changes for all of the people to band together some of the people—almost like a form of propaganda, I dare say. In this class though, I learned so much more…it was as if I began to see the timeline of history come to life. It was fantastic to connect the dots! Although we ultimately got to the Vietnam War era, we weren’t left with enough time to really dig into it because we ended up spending so much time discussing the Civil War and the post-Civil War time. Myself and several classmates really enjoyed opening up and tearing down the walls of discussing slavery and the repercussions that we still feel and see in the news everyday. This class, but really Dr. Randa, makes me crave to learn more and dig deeper into our relations in the Middle East, and how the United States missed an opportunity to hear certain influential people’s voices at the Treaty of Paris. I think the most important thing I took away from this class was the feeling of being engaged not only in our current politics and the history that we are in the process of making, but also understanding the complex connections of social and global history.

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