Earlier this year the Ashe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to place “In God We Trust” on a wall in the small courtroom. More recently they voted to place it on the building’s exterior and suggested it be placed on all county buildings. If Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were alive and visited Ashe County, they’d no doubt be shocked to see the courthouse and learn the national motto is “In God We Trust” since they were tasked by Congress with designing the Great Seal of the United States. Adopted in 1782, it included the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, one) and for most of two centuries this phrase served as the de facto national motto.
The phrase “In God We Trust” made its first public appearance on U.S. coins during the Civil War, in part, to show that God was on the side of the Union. During the paranoia and hysteria stemming from Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s “red scare” hearings in the 1950s, some in Congress thought that by acknowledging God as a national symbol, America would be protected from the Communist menace.
Scoring a religious Trifecta of sorts, the secular Pledge of Allegiance – that had gotten us through two world wars – was amended in 1954 to include the words “under God”; legislation was passed in 1955 to add “In God We Trust” to all coins and currency; and the national motto “E Pluribus Unum” was changed to “In God We Trust” in 1956. The phrase was also engraved above the entrance to the Senate chamber and above the Speaker’s seat in the House of Representatives.
Likely popular with a large section of the county’s religious population, the commissioners’ vote to place the phrase on county buildings rings hollow with a sizeable segment as well. Although courts have held the practice to be legal and largely “ceremonial,” some critics, like myself, say the phrase is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” – and is an infringement on the Constitutional principle of church/state separation. If a person walks into a county building where it says, ‘We trust in God,’ then ‘we,’ the government of Ashe County is directly endorsing religion and could be viewed as endorsing a particular religion or endorsing religious belief over non-belief.
Furthermore, a 2012 Pew Research poll found that one-third of U.S adults don’t consider themselves a “religious person.” Assuming Ashe County is representative of the nation it’s highly likely this bloc of citizens is not in favor of the commissioners’ actions. Likewise, there are many religiously affiliated individuals who support church/state separation and will not appreciate this move either. Moreover, the book, Encyclopedia of Gods, identifies over 2,500 deities of the world. Which God is it that we’re trusting in? A more accurate phrase would be: “In Gods Some Trust.”
More troubling than their decision to place the phrase on county buildings is their motivation and the manner in which they intend to do it. The motto “In God We Trust” is typically seen to be ceremonial and nondenominational, but not so with our commissioners.
Earlier this year, Rick Lanier, co-founder and vice chair of the U.S. Motto Action Committee, lobbied our commissioners to place the phrase on county buildings. Lanier is on record telling the North Carolina Christian Action League, “We feel compelled to move forward aggressively in the hope of maintaining a remnant of our godly American heritage. Because of the apostasy of our nation and the evil forces of political correctness our religious freedoms are quickly dissipating.” In case anyone has doubts, the Ashe County Commissioners are endorsing the Christian God exclusively.
But it’s the financial decision that’s most baffling. Lanier’s group had offered to pay for the placement of the motto with private funds, but our commissioners voted to pay for the placement with county tax dollars. Commissioner Larry Rhodes seemed incensed to learn the private funds would come from voluntary donations. Where does he think private funds come from? Once again the commissioners prove they’re irresponsible stewards of the taxpayers’ money.
Rather than wasting time and tax dollars on frivolous actions like this, it’s too bad we don’t have competent, forward-looking commissioners. Imagine, for example, if the board had thought through a county zoning plan that included an industrial park. Rather than putting the Glendale Springs community and Appalachian Materials Group through the ringer over a proposed asphalt plant, the company could be moving forward building the plant in an environmentally appropriate location and bringing some much needed jobs to the county. Under the leadership of Chairman Gary Roark, competence has not been one of the board’s strong points.
Though many people claim the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, it wasn’t. There’s no mention of God in the Constitution; it’s a secular document and the only two references to religion are exclusionary: 1) Article 6, Section 3, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust;” 2) the First Amendment.
The Presidential oath of office, the only oath detailed in the Constitution, does not contain the phrase “so help me God” or any requirement to swear on a bible (Article 2, Section 1).
In 1797 the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Tripoli. The treaty, negotiated under President Washington and signed by President Adams, stated “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” It remained in effect for 8 years.
One may wonder if the Ashe County Commissioners are ignorant of these facts. America is a pluralistic country that respects all beliefs and one where government and religion fare much better when government remains neutral in matters of religion.
Ken Lynn is a retired USAF colonel. He’s an adjunct online instructor with the USAF Air University.