Saturday, December 3, 2011

Would the American Founders have affirmed our national motto "In God We Trust"?

Thomas Kidd, of Baylor University, argues they would have in this op-ed published by USA Today:  Founders would agree that "In God We Trust."  Kidd has published on Patrick Henry, so much of his argument pertains to the early Republican/Jeffersonian tradition, but the Federalists (like Hamilton and Adams) were equally insistent that Providence governs the affairs of men and that our rights and duties flow from divine wellsprings, rather than the arbitrary diktat of the State.  Even the most religiously skeptical among the founding generation -- Franklin and Paine come to mind -- affirmed the existence of Providence and God's superintending care over human life. While the Founders may have had a broad diversity of religious opinion regarding orthodox Christian belief, God as the providential source of human rights was key to the principles of our Revolution and the formation of the early Republic.


Jonathan Rowe said...

I hope to get Dr. Kidd's book on Patrick Henry.

Mark D. said...

Me too!

jimmiraybob said...

It would be a more convincing argument if the founders had actually, you know, debated and adopted the slogan. As is, this is just an ad hoc assertion attempting to lump all the founders into a singularity to support an unknown.

Based on the available record, if they had debated this as a motto, there is little reason to believe that they would have adopted it any more than they put God explicitly into the founding document - the Constitution.

Some would have argued aye and some would have argued nay.

Mark D. said...

The question is whether the ideas behind the national motto were ones that the Founders would endorse. While there may have been an atheist crank among the Founders, such an atheist crank has not yet been identified. All of the Founders -- even Franklin and Paine -- affirmed the existence of God, that God controls human history, that God is the source of rights and duties, and that God was the judge over human actions -- ad the judge of each individual human. Whether they would have affirmed an actual national motto is a different question -- some would have, some probably wouldn't have.

Another related point regards a question of jurisdiction. I can certainly imagine someone like Jefferson not wanting a religiously-informed national motto, but that would not be because he denied the truth behind the motto, it would have been because of his restricted view of the proper powers of the federal government. If one looks at the States, though, one sees EMBEDDED IN ALL BUT TWO STATE CONSTITUTIONS the conviction that God is the source of our rights and duties. Even a state as secular as Washington State expresses this in its preamble.

When looking at what the Founders put into law, it is important to look at what the States were doing as well as the federal government. Radical secularists and militant atheists often ignore the States, because it is historically and ideologically inconvenient for them to do so.

jimmiraybob said...

But again, the point is that the founders, framers and ratifiers, who had the opportunity to attach "In God We Trust" as the new national motto did not. That is an inconvenient fact that those who want to Christianize the federal government conveniently forget. Certainly, at the greatest point of insecurity of a fledgling nation you'd think that they'd ask for such an additional assurance but they didn't.

What some or most of the founding fathers, framers and ratifiers were able to do was to focus on constructing a republic free of unnecessary entanglements with religion. It was enough for them to work out the secular mechanics and to leave faith and religiosity to the individual and faith institutions or, as you point out, local secular authorities where institutional bigotry is hardest to root out. But the trend was clearly toward disestablishment and toward pluralism and respect for all citizens.

Disenfranchising citizens of the Republic was not what the founders, framers and ratifiers overall were going for. That vestiges of the old European systems should linger is not a surprise.

And, disestablishment is/was not just a matter of "crank atheists" and/or "radical secularists and militant atheists" raising hell. It was a matter of walking the walk of the "rights of conscience" talk. It was also a matter of seeking fairness and justice to minority religions - Catholics, Baptists, Quakers and, later, Mormons. That is an inconvenient and often forgetten fact that those who would make this issue about an atheist/secular conspiracy against "true Americans".

There are atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and members of minority religions that have fought and shed blood or paid the ultimate sacrifice for this nation and to piss on them is unconscionable.

One major difference between the old European model and what the founders, framers, ratifiers invented and what all who have fought to preserve, is a system where the secular government fights for the citizen and does not seek alliance with religion to impose control and order. That in itself to courage and is also a faith legacy.

It is and has been radical and crank and militant religious zealots that make extra constitutional demands on a political system meant to serve all of the people.

jimmiraybob said...

George Washington to the country's first Jewish congregation, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (1790):

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

No caveats.


Tom Van Dyke said...

"May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, and planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven, and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah."

---GWashington, To the Hebrew Congregation of the City of Savannah. May, 1790

You're trippin', JRB. Nobody's "Christianizing." The topic is simple theism, In God We Trust, the same God who delivered the Jews from Egypt and "whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation."

jimmiraybob said...

Not at all trippin' just looking at reality. Who else is it that is attempting to graft God onto the constitution if it's not Christians? Who else is it that condemns Obama for not being a Christian, choosing to ignore or explain away all evidence to the contrary? Who is it that is trying to do away with evolution in favor of creationism in the science classroom? Who else is it that is attempting to overwrite historical fact in an attempt to create a false image of the founding? Ask those that are at the forefront of getting God into national government if they are simple theists.

Is it all Christians? No, it's the zealots. The radicals.

And, you're still missing the point. Most/all founders, framers and ratifiers and Americans at the founding and most/all Americans today feel that there should be a place for personal religious faith and conviction. There is nothing barring public expression of faith. The public square is not off limits despite breathless assertions to the contrary - good for fund raising and political organizing.

There is, however, a limit on government involvement when it comes to proselytizing.

And to reiterate, it is not just the atheist, agnostic or people in minority faiths today that work to keep government and established religion as far apart as possible, it is also Christians and Jews and Mormons et al. It is just plain good for both government and religion.

The founders, framers and ratifiers agreed on this. They rebuffed attempts to put God explicitly into the Constitution and at the same time sought to protect the rights of the individual and at the same time sought to protect the individual from state coercion toward religion. As I said, there really is nothing in the record that would suggest that the founding fathers, framers or ratifiers would have chosen "In God We Trust" as the new national motto despite personal religious or theistic convictions.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Who else is it that is attempting to overwrite historical fact in an attempt to create a false image of the founding?

Um, you? You completely walked past the George Washington quote that trumped yours.

Your premise is faulty, that acknowledgement of God as a reality is synonymous with "establishment of 'religion.'" They didn't see it that way, and you'll be hard-pressed to prove it yourself from the record, from the Founders' writings.

As for your screed at the most inaccurate of the "other side" and dragging in creationism, yeah, you're trippin'. Those arguments aren't being made here by anybody at this blog. It ain't that kind of party at AC, not even from our resident evangelical minister, Mr. Tubbs.

"[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either."

Washington's first inaugural address. Bold face mine. Then they walked en masse over to St. Paul's Chapel for a benediction.

See also "Annuit coepetis," [God---or "Providence"] has favored our efforts, on the

approved by the Continental Congress in 1782 and reauthorized by the Constitution government, 1789.

There is admittedly no slam-dunk here that will satisfy you, JRB, but the hard evidence for your own position is non-existent so far, just some unsupported generalizing about the First Amendment.


jimmiraybob said...

Um, you? You completely walked past the George Washington quote that trumped yours.

Not in the least. The part of the quote that you highlight does not in any way have a bearing on whether Washington or the founders, framers or ratifiers would have accepted In God We Trust as the motto for the new nation (regardless of pomp and pageantry at the inaugural). My point being that personal religious conviction is personal and reinforcement by the government is a separate issue. There is no trumping going on.

Annuit coepetis - introduced by Charles Thomson, a colonial patriot, leader of Philadelphia's Sons of Liberty, secretary to the Continental Congress throughout its duration, and all around Founding Father was chosen by the Continental Congress to come up with the final design for the Great Seal of the United States. An avid Latinist, he adopted the phrase from Virgil's The Georgics, written in the first century BC, the translation of which is, "Providence Has Favored Our Undertakings." (The subject of the poem is agriculture, animal husbandry and bees. It is heavily influenced by Epicurianism.) As Thomson explained his seal design, "The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause."

Novus ordo seclorum - also introduced by Thomson for the Great Seal was an adaptation of Virgil's Eclogue IV and is translated as "A New Order of the Ages."

Along with E Pluribus Unim these Latin Phrases, adapted from a pagan source, are not explicitly God/Yahweh specific. They are, like so much of the ancient Greek/Roman language adapted/adopted at the time of the founding, broadly suggestive but non-specific.

The idea of providence being an exclusive signal to God/Yahweh is just not correct. It is just as easily understood as a nod to the bounty and providence of nature unbounded by one or many gods.


jimmiraybob said...

...just some unsupported generalizing about the First Amendment.

Yes, unsupported. Unless we look at the writings of the founders, framers and ratifiers. And, of course, the language of the amendment.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You've offered no evidence for your position, JRB.


The idea of providence being an exclusive signal to God/Yahweh is just not correct.

Clearly, George Washington, whom you tried to enlist into your argument, says otherwise in his letter to the Savannah Jews.

As for Annuit coepetis, you will not find one Founder who did not use "God" and "Providence" interchangably.

Congress did approve the saying in both 1782 1nd 1789, and indeed, it's stronger than "In God We Trust," since it asserts that God was on our side. In God We Trust is a less extravagant claim.

I allowed that no evidence will satisfy you, but the preponderance of evidence is in favor, esp since you haven't offered a single piece of evidence to the contrary that's held up to examination.

jimmiraybob said...

Rather than go round and round let me say that if the point of the article is that the founding fathers would have affirmed "In God We Trust" as our national motto, then what I've said stands.

If the point of the article is that some/most of the founding fathers would in some manner personally affirm the sentiment "In God I Trust" then so be it. I have no beef with that. I have no problem with some/most/all of the founding fathers having some theistic-deistic beliefs, no matter how orthodox or radically unorthodox. I have friends that affirm as much. As I said, personal conviction does not necessarily translate to a national motto.

Maybe we have been arguing two different points.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not me. Approving Annuit coeptis, Washington's "first official act," Congress assembled walking over to St. Paul's Chapel: all these were public actions, not private belief, and consistent with approving "In God We Trust."

And a host more less probative evidence, not worth posting just for you to take potshots at. I'll stick with the strongest evidence.

As a rule, I don't really argue private belief unless it vitiates public action. And when the two are in apparent conflict, such as John Adams' Trinitarian language in his 1798 Thxgiving Address, I go with the public speech or action.

Annuit coeptis is entirely consistent with In God We Trust, and indeed is an even stronger theological claim.

jimmiraybob said...

The topic is simple theism, In God We Trust, the same God who delivered the Jews from Egypt

Tom, you say that this is a matter of simple theism and then you make the case for a specific theological view.

Washington to General Thomas Nelson
Camp at White Marsh, 12 miles from Philadelphia,
8 November, 1777.

"It is in vain to look back to our disappointment on the 4th Instant at Germantown. We must endeavor to deserve better of Providence, and, I am persuaded, she will smile upon us. The rebuff which the Enemy met with at Red Bank (in which Count Donop and about four or 500 Hessians were killed and wounded) and the loss of the Augusta of 64 and Merlin of 18 Guns, have, I dare say, been fully related to you, which renders it unnecessary for one to dwell on it. They are using every effort for the reduction of Fort Mifflin and we, under our present circumstances, to save it. The event is left to Heaven."



I think that Washington's conception of providence was more complex, or maybe less complex and more encompassing, than the simple circumstantial case that you make. A simple theistic approach would have to also take into account the stoic notion of Providence as expressed by the likes of Cleanthes, Cicero, Senneca, and Marcus Aurelius - non Judeo Christian sources - as well as some general sense of agency (Again, she? Goddess of Liberty?) when it comes to Washington.

Certainly Washington had some conception of a "wonder-working Deity" but why doesn't he embrace Jehovah (is it accurate to say the God of Abraham) as the God of all instead of "that people." It mystifies.

Again, there is no explicit connection between the concept of providence as introduced by Thompson (who himself makes no explicit reference to Judaism, Christianity or specific theology in his written description to Congress) and the Jewish conception of God or the Christian conception of God (historically not theologically the same, of course).

So, I stand by my view that Annuit coepetis embraces a broadly generic sense of agency or fortune not similar to the more specific "In God We Trust." That's not to say that it cannot be embraced in a specific Christian sense, as you and others do.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I accord it an Abrahamic sense, yes, since no other God matches up.

As for your long hard search for "she", it's worth a parse in an academic sense [custom? The Holy Spirit?], but the letter to the Savannah Jews explicitly links Deity, the Providence of the Founding to the Providence of Exodus.

"May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, and planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation..."

I can't argue any better than what's there in black & white.

This is going round & round into reruns, JRB. I'll just rest my case here. Thx for the discussion, and the opportunity to put my argument through your meat-grinder. [Sarcasm off. Really, thx. This is my favorite part of AC.]

bpabbott said...

TVD: I accord it an Abrahamic sense, yes, since no other God matches up.

Tom, are you advocating your personal theological preference? ... or do you mean that the founder's intended to pass judgment upon the theological opinions of our Nation's citizens?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Dunno what you're talking about, Ben. Their providential ethical monotheism is a tight fit with the Abrahamic God. They didn't invent a new one. That's all. The Trinity in particular is an unnecessary complication, so they let it slide.

are you advocating your personal theological preference

If I have ever done that at AC, Ben, [I take great pains not to even argue there is a God] please take it as "dicta" and irrelevant to our purpose here.

Brian Tubbs said...

In 1814, Francis Scott Key plugged the line "...and this be our motto: in God is our trust..." into his poem The Star-Spangled Banner. Given that some of the Founders were still living at the time of the War of 1812 and Key's poem, is anyone aware of any such Founder expressing disagreement with Key's assertion that "in God is our trust" was an appropriate national motto? Or is it fair to say that Key felt the vast majority of his countrymen would agree with him?

jimmiraybob said...

The Star-Spangled Banner didn't become the national anthem until 1931. Given that, I'm sure the surviving FFs were fine with the lyrics of what became a very popular song.