Why E Pluribus Unum Is a Better Motto for Today than “In God We Trust”

On July 30, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the bill that made “In God We Trust” the national motto. This was the first official national motto and replaced the unofficial one, which goes back to the Franklin-Jefferson-Adams era, “E Pluribus Unum”: “Out of many, one.”

I wish the nation would revert to “Out of many, one.”

“In God We Trust” is an aspiration at best, a lie at worst, for any nation, especially one with history’s largest military, economy, and worldwide media influence. Then consider the the insane number of guns (estimated at 393 million) owned by U.S. citizens, including unregulated “militias,” and the protections afforded nearly any adult’s capacity to own a weapon of mass destruction.

These facts beg the question of who or what functions as the nation’s ultimate concern. In my opinion, saying “In God We Trust” is making a false oath and taking God’s name in vain.

Don’t number me among those who want to excise religion from public life. I’ve spent much of my career thinking about, teaching, preaching, and now writing about how people of faith do and should exercise their faith in public. But I don’t buy the “return to God” language invoked by Billy Graham in the 1950s and echoed by many others since then. From the late 1940s and up until 1989, godless Soviet socialism was the enemy against which “In God We Trust” was part of the national defense (and sometimes an offensive weapon). Today, the phrase is used in America’s internal moral conflict. Religious conservatives invoke the motto against those they cast as radical secularists. However, I’m not buying this invocation. I cannot see the connection between trust in God and support for retributive justice, inhumane immigration policies, and discriminatory legislation premised on an alleged priority for the right of religious liberty, understood conservatively, over every other right. This apparent contradiction between professed belief and action/policy leads me to call “In God We Trust” an aspiration or a lie.

Our foremost challenge as a nation is not to trust God. I’m not sure any nation CAN, in practice, do that. Who is for using prayer as the nation’s only shield from those seeking to harm the U.S.?

During the Civil War (April 1863), President Lincoln was pressured by Northern evangelicals to declare the Union to be a Christian republic, akin to the claim the Confederacy made about their nation. Lincoln allowed “In God We Trust” to be printed on coins. He also said, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” Does the U.S., does any nation, trust a God with his/her own purposes?

“Out of many, one” is more aligned with the nation’s challenge to become the kind of nation we’ve aspired to be, when thinking and acting according to our best morally and spiritually-shaped selves. Our challenge is to form a more perfect union—of the most diverse collection of persons ever in human history seeking to be one democratic nation—for the sake of justice, defense, the common welfare, the blessings of liberty, and peace (you’ll recognize these public virtues from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.

Out of many, one.

That is our aspiration, and that is our challenge. It has always been our challenge. But since the 1965 immigration law (which overturned a highly discriminatory immigration law from 1924), the turmoil fueled by U.S. policies that drives many Central Americans to the border, the broadening knowledge of previously suppressed ugly and shameful truths and stories, and the ways that markets and post-colonialism and technology and conflicts/wars/prejudices have moved people from their homes and around the world—real oneness may now be more elusive than ever.

The U.S. has never truly been one nation. We were colonies with different origins, representing 11 nation-like founding cultures, each of which has lasting effects on geographical regions (see Colin Woodward, American Nations).

We are comprised of nearly as many skin tones, body types, and facial features as there are on the earth; and, historically, we’ve made racism and ethnocentrism out of these differences.

We have more religious diversity, with higher percentages of religious practice, than any other developed nation. While there is a great deal of churn and signs of institutional decline in the American religious landscape, and some erstwhile church buildings are now home or restaurants or condos, religion in the U.S. is a long way from being mostly museum-vintage.

We came here over the Bering Strait many millennia ago, in ships-planes-and-by-foot in recent centuries, and crammed into slave ships on the Middle Passage for over 200 years.

Today, we are Red or Blue, with relatively little Purple. We distinguish ourselves from one another by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, gender identity, religion (with legions of subdivisions, as well as a growing number of “don’t need it”), Trump enthusiast/traditional conservative/progressive/democratic socialist, big city/small town, insured/uninsured, poor/wealthy. I’m sure I’ve omitted a bunch of other salient divisions.

Reflect on that list regarding how we distinguish ourselves from one another. Is there a category that includes more divisions than religion? I don’t think so. “In God We Trust”? We who are religious do not trust in the same God, even within our own houses. “We don’t trust your God, and sometimes I’m not sure about the One we claim” might be more realistic.

We religious persons have plenty we could contribute today without doubling down on “In God We Trust.” We could cultivate a more perfect union in which diversities are accepted and celebrated. We also have much we could offer to the “unum.”

We could contribute to a culture that more strongly values:

  • Common humanity.
  • Common human dignity.
  • Common mother earth.
  • Human beings created as persons for community, not as individuals to maximize their self-interest and net worth.
  • Golden Rule living.
  • Discovering, speaking, and holding ourselves accountable to truth
  • Restorative justice.
  • Accountability to a moral/ethical power greater than the state and its laws.
  • Meaningful penance and forgiveness in public life (and not one without the other).
  • Bridgebuilding to other communities.

We could show, by word and example, how to value the Many and the One.

We could.