Motto blitzkrieg is a teachable moment
The North Carolina Senate is currently considering a bill passed by the House that would require all schools to display the national and state flags in classrooms, the national and state mottos in a prominent location at the school, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily (but not compel students to participate as that would clearly be unconstitutional). Sponsored by members of the N.C. Prayer Caucus, the “National and State Mottos in Schools Act” (HB 965) would appropriate $25,000 from the General Fund to the Department of Public Instruction to implement these requirements and also “provide age-appropriate instruction on the meaning and historical origins of the flags, mottoes, and the Pledge of Allegiance.”
However, the proposed legislation offers no guidance on what such instruction might look like. As Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches, recently noted our “first [national] motto — adopted in 1782 for use on the seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) — has been used on money since 1795.” And the current official national motto, “In God We Trust,” was not adopted as an alternative until 1956 — to set the United States apart from a “godless” Soviet Union (The Progressive Pulse, May 31). While this narrative is accurate, it misses a deeper and arguably more instructive history behind the phrase that is printed on all our money today.
In 1861, as the American union was in the early stages of being “shattered beyond reconstruction,” a Pennsylvania minister wrote to the Treasury Secretary urging “recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins” in order to “place [the Union] openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.” Slavery apologists in the south had been quoting the Bible (see Ephesians 6:5 and 1 Timothy 6 for example) to Radical Republicans in the north for at least a decade. In an editorial for ‘The Western Democrat’ (Charlotte) in 1854 John Mitchel proclaimed, “[t]he injunction of the New Testament is not, masters discharge your slaves, but be merciful to your slaves — slaves be obedient to your masters.” Mitchel was tired of “reading the platitudes of the abolitionists, who quote the Bible for the ‘unity of the human race,’ (which the Bible does not assert,) but condemn the same Bible as an authority for slavery, (upon which the Bible is clear)…”
Two years later, the same Charlotte newspaper published a response to Rev. A. Blackburn who had argued that slavery was “per se” sinful. Frederick Augustus Ross, a Presbyterian New School clergyman, slave owner, and author of ‘Slavery As Ordained of God’ (1857), countered that the “relation of master and slave is not sin, but sanctioned by God.” Until the “sin per se doctrine will, in this agitation, be utterly demolished,” there could be no peace according to Ross. And in 1858, ‘The North Carolina Whig’ in Charlotte condemned another Presbyterian minister and “conductor” of the Underground Railroad who “renders himself obnoxious to our citizens” by denying that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible and warned him to “be on you[r] guard when you come to Charlotte.”
In 1864, as the Civil War continued to ravage the country, Northern (Abolitionist) Protestants attempted to amend the preamble to our godless constitution to recognize “Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government.” This amendment effort failed, but “In God We Trust” did make it onto some (Union) coins before falling out of favor as a result of increased secularism after the war. Southern Protestants objected to its introduction immediately after the war. A News Orleans resident called it the “height of wickedness.” In late 1865 the “reconstructed” ‘Nashville Dispatch’ asked indignantly, “[w]ho gave [Treasury] Secretary McCulloch the right thus to introduce his theological creed upon his fellow citizens? Who gave him the right thus to claim for his faith the sanction of the entire nation?” The ‘Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph’ in Ohio offered a rejoinder that the new motto “would have been sadly out of place on Confederate money, because that was beyond the reach of redemption” (January 6, 1866).
Of course, the more recent history of the national motto is also instructive. According to the president and past president of the Orange-Durham Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, “26 ‘In God We Trust’ bills were introduced in state legislatures as part of a campaign called Project Blitz” in a first wave of attacks intended to “slowly chip away at the separation of church and state” (The Herald Sun, June 11). And the phrase remains on all U.S. coins and paper currency only because it has historically been seen by courts as “a form of ‘ceremonial deism’ which through historical usage and ubiquity cannot be reasonably understood to convey government approval of religious belief.” I doubt these instructional bookends are what the N.C. Prayer Caucus has in mind with this legislation, but that shouldn’t prevent teachers from covering these important aspects of the history behind our current national motto or from noting that our founding motto is E Pluribus Unum.
“[O]ur motto is ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ and we are admonished to look to the past only for experience and instruction which it affords, and to the future for the fruition which hope has promised us, in exchanging the hard heart and the rude din of war for the fruits of industry and art, the consolations of religion, the rectifying influences of education and social intercourse, and the sweets of domestic love.” — Daniel S. Dickinson (New York Times, 1865)
Wilhelm Kühner is the pen name of William Keener, President of the Hickory Humanist Alliance. This article was originally submitted as a guest column to a local newspaper, but they apparently decided not to print it.