Aronow v. U.S.
US Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit (1970)
432 Federal Reporter, Second Series, 242

Stefan Ray Aronow brought suit claiming that the law which called “In God we trust” the “national motto” and required that it be inscribed “on all United States currency and coins” violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In response, the court observed,

It is not easy to discern any religious significance attendant the payment of a bill with coin or currency on which has been imprinted “In God we Trust” or the study of a government publication or document bearing that slogan. In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, Congress has directed such uses. While “ceremonial” and “patriotic” may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has “spiritual and psychological value” and “inspirational quality.”

In other words, they judged the motto to be virtually content free, a piece of blather, a greeting card wish. No harm, no foul.

Of course, this plays nicely into Soren Kierkegaard’s critique of the empty, Danish religion of his day. When, 1854, a departed bishop was eulogized as a “truth witness,” he lumped him in with those who robbed the faith of its meaning: “Truly, there is something that is more against Christianity and the essence of Christianity than any heresy, any schism, more against it than all heresies and schisms together, and it is this: to play at Christianity . . . .” And things didn’t seem to be getting better when, in 2005, a Danish Lutheran Pastor named Grosboell declared there was “no heavenly God.” He was reinstated as pastor by the state-church authorities in response to the pleas of his parishioners. Apparently, the notion that their ministers adhere to the Apostles’ Creed, the Augsburg Confession, and Luther’s Small Catechism had “no theological impact.”

Of course, this case also deals with political philosophy, with the reasonable framing of constitutions (and, indeed, the very existence of constitutions) and not just matters of personal consecration. In that vein, what shall we make of the U.S. First Amendment which, among other things, proscribes “the establishment of religion” and ensures “the free exercise” thereof? Advocates argue that “a free church in a free state” is the ideal and that when church and state are not properly separated, both are weakened. The church becomes something of a house pet rather than an incisive prophet, and the state loses an independent voice to keep it honest.

This is not to say that church voices are always anodyne. English pastor and Oxford professor John Keble shook things up mightily when, in 1833, in a ceremonial sermon for the annual opening of the nation’s courts, preached “The National Apostasy,” with words such as these:

Whatever be the cause, in this country of late years, (though we are lavish in professions of piety,) there has been observable a growing disinclination, on the part of those bound by VOLUNTARY OATHS, to whatever reminds them of their obligation; a growing disposition to explain it all away. We know what, some years ago, would have been thought of such uneasiness, if betrayed by persons officially sworn, in private, legal, or commercial life. If there be any subjects or occasions, now, on which men are inclined to judge of it more lightly, it concerns them deeply to be quite sure, that they are not indulging or encouraging a profane dislike of God’s awful Presence ; a general tendency, as a people, to leave Him out of all their thoughts.

So “state-sponsored” preachers can show some redemptive edge (though his nineteenth-century language is not particularly punchy to our ears).

Of course, church-and-state disputes are not just a family matter within Christendom, a tussle among American Baptists, British Anglicans, and Danish Lutherans. Indeed, atheists (such as the notorious Madalyn Murray O’Hair), Jews (Steven Engel of Engel v. Vitale), and those of other faiths have brought suit against one form civic piety or another (e.g., a WWI memorial “Peace Cross” in Bladensburg, Maryland).

Of course, talk of proper government ranges far beyond jousting over this or that coin inscription, classroom prayer, or White House Christmas tree. In Saudi Arabia, the Muslim homeland, Islamic sharia law reigns, with evangelism forbidden and apostasy a capital crime. On the other end of the spectrum, atheists such a Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have proposed “godless” systems, the former prescribing an absolute monarch for the state “Leviathan,” the latter championing a “social contract” among natural rights holders.

Government designers have been at it from ancient days, from Aristotle’s discussion, in Politics, of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, to Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which emphasized “the consent of the governed.” And, yes, we have the oft-assigned classic, The Republic, by Plato, which British philosophy Karl Popper ranks as a totalitarian abomination along with the system designed by Karl Marx, Communism. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, he argues that there is nothing more dangerous than a utopian scheme, one that says we can achieve a “heaven on earth” if we will just institute the right policies (never mind that we might well need to “break some eggs to make an omelet”).

Though Popper wasn’t commending a faith-based state, we should note that one of the biggest antidotes to the sort of tyranny he sketches is the good old fashioned notion of The Fall, described in Genesis 3. Armed with the conviction that men are not essentially good, but rather sinful and dangerous, the Americans in particular (yes, many with seriously Calvinistic convictions) instituted a “separation of powers” to help keep everybody honest. No one could be trusted with massive authority, so a host of checks and balances were put in place to protect “God-given rights,” based on the Ten Commandments (e.g., the right to life from “Don’t murder” and the right to property from “Don’t steal”). Thus we have such “checks and balances” as term limits, vetoes, veto-overrides,  the electoral college, a free press, judicial review, impeachment, competing branches, and a two-house Congress.

Speaking of Popper, he also raised a matter germane to the Aronow case, the issue of “falsifiability.” He said that the only respectable claims had to at face at least the possibility (if not the actuality) of disconfirmation. If nothing could conceivably count against a proposition, if it could handily dismiss anything imaginable counter-evidence, then it was an empty claim. Some suggest that Darwinism has this problem; others that declarations of God’s goodness are uncannily resistant to gainsaying. (We consider these criticisms in our treatment of the Kitzmiller and Robbie cases.)

So what shall we say of the statement, “In God we trust”? Can we think of anything that might come to pass which would cause us to observe, “Well, I guess we don’t really trust in God”? Does our defense spending show that we rely on arms instead of Him for deliverance? Or does it show that we believe the stewardship of our freedoms under God requires prudent action, even as we pray for help? Does granting liberty to pornographers mean we’ve lost faith in and broken trust with His canons of righteousness, or does it mean that we don’t need law to enforce moral rectitude, but rather that we rely upon the Holy Spirit and our God-given powers of persuasion to bring our citizens around to the right path?

Are we really saying something substantive by this motto? Well, Stefan Aronow thought so, enough to fight it in court. He had the sense that it helped create and maintain a sense of accountability, one that could somehow channel behavior in directions that might prove objectionable. Perhaps it would stigmatize atheists, making it harder for them to rise in society. Perhaps it could lead us to quote the Bible in making out our case for certain public policies. And besides, whose version of God might prevail should demographics shift? Would Allah displace Yahweh as the standard? What about Krishna? If the latter, would we be opening the door to a caste system? If the former, would we start talking about jihad when considering war?

We’re told that one’s entire genetic code is written into every cell. So, too, in philosophy. In looking at something as small as the inscription on a dime, we get into just about everything, from to polity, to anthropology, to lexicology, to integrity, and beyond.