– An excerpt from “Symbols on the US Dollar” –
The motto ‘In God We Trust’, does not relate to any specific religious denomination, but conveys ideals of a civil order linked to varied symbols on the US dollar. The implicit ‘Trust’ is about the economy that involves all citizens.
These dollars we routinely exchange everyday reflect an intrinsic confidence in the economy. Terms like ‘Annuit Coeptis’ stands as a covenant of ‘Trust’ of the people in the government and its institutions relying on Providence’s ongoing guidance in America’s undertakings.
Agnostics and atheists may find the idea of an American civil religion, or any mention of religion or deity, objectionable. The reason may be that the term religion has been associated with Christianity throughout the centuries. As described, the motto does not represent the God of the Bible. The deity on the dollar alludes to a political union and an economic reality, an attribute that reflects an invisible yet omnipresent dynamic that is hard to express in words except allegorically.
Whereas for Christian fundamentalists the description of a deity related to civil religion is likely to be considered heretical, even though the term ‘religion’ relates to a civic order and has a pagan origin. The sayings ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’ and ‘in the world but not of the world’ are appropriate considerations to be added here, in the sense that an individual’s faith is not altered by being involved in the economy. It might also be inferred that there is no violation of the separation of church and state since civil religion does not constitute a church.
In a cultural environment where anything goes, the use of words like religion or religious may inspire feeling of uneasiness. The reason might be that a great number of people believe that we live in a predominantly secular culture emancipated from any moral constraints or guidelines. This type of mindset promotes the perception that to submit to an ethical standard would infringe on an individual’s civil liberties. This uneasiness with civility and religion is oblivious to the fact that our contemporary world is dominated by celebrity cults that are partisan, sectarian, and divisive in scope.
At this point, some clarifications on the meaning of civil religion, and more specifically religion would be helpful.
Religion comes from the Roman religio. It relates to the proper rituals and ceremonies dedicated to the gods performed by mortals in order to maintain the beneficial order and prosperity of the citizens of Rome. Religion can be defined as that which removes or separates things and animals from the common use and transfers them to a special sphere through a meticulous execution of rituals and sacrifice. There is no religion without this separation.
Another well-known Roman concept that is closely related to religio is sacer, translated into sacred. Religio and sacer do not refer to a union between mortals and the gods, but to what ensures that they remain distinct. When a commander performs an act of devotio (devotion) in order to secure a military victory, he consecrates and devotes his life to the gods. By doing so, he belongs exclusively to them…
In practice, religio is foremost civic, and implicitly political. It reflects the power of the gods being the eternal representatives of power, order, continuity, and hierarchy embodied by the mortal rulers of Rome.
As a side note, the word ‘religion’ is not used in the Old Testament, and the few times the word appears, it relates to foreign belief systems considered heathen or pagan. It does not show up in the synoptic Gospels. The word is only used in later epistles influenced by the predominant Roman culture. What the Bible reveals is faith in the presence of the Almighty who communicates with individuals whom he sets apart to instruct, to lead, to prophesize, and govern God’s chosen people, making sure they abide with the covenant he made with them and the commandments he gave them.
The term civil religion comes from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract.” Robert N. Bellah applied the title to the American political arena to outline the religious content of the inaugural speeches delivered by American presidents.
The idea of an American civil religion first came to Bellah’s attention with John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961. He noticed that his address was full of religious references to God and the nation, described in a very idyllic form. He also noticed that most of the past presidents’ inaugural speeches had the same type of references: a call for devotion to the nation described in its ideal form, where divine Providence plays a guiding role in shaping the destiny of the United States of America.
Except for the references that allude directly to a biblical God, Bellah observes that the content of most speeches do not advocate any particular religious creed. There is no specific mention of Jesus Christ, Yahweh, or Allah, since the purpose of the discourse is to form a consensus and represent the multicultural aspect of the society to which they are addressed.
Yet, Bellah notes that among the first presidents, many also use references to the Bible. Especially to suggest a connection between the New World and Israel, the Exodus, the Chosen People, the promised land, and the New Jerusalem. These analogies, in the context of a predominantly Christian background of the first presidents, were inevitable.
Although Bellah acknowledges the connections with Judeo-Christian tenets, he carefully dispels any suggestions that American civil religion has any Christian doctrinal content, or is a substitute for Christianity. He contends that civil religion has a different role than an institutional belief system, since it is specifically political. As such, it appeals to all of the people with their differing backgrounds. To Bellah, American civil religion is an understanding of the American experience in terms of a “transcendent ethical vision.” This interpretation of the universal and transcendental is only meaningful if made in relation to the origin and destiny of the US political model of freedom and democracy. Bellah further points out that the God of civil religion is a God of order and freedom rather than of love and forgiveness. It is a God mostly concerned with the history and destiny of the United States. American Civil Religion is civic. Its discourse is civil and eschews partisanship.
Civil religion has its holidays. Thanksgiving is a good example of a yearly ritual that has been celebrated throughout history by the American people to give thanks for a harvest of food shared with family and friends, and therefore a celebration that implicitly symbolizes the benefits provided by the economy. The celebration of the 4th of July is another important example…
The dollar displays symbols that convey cultural references from different sources. None of the symbols is singled out as more important than the other. They all contribute to a graphic makeup of the dollar. The most obvious disclosure of religion on the dollar is the word ‘God’ in the motto In God We Trust. As stated, this reference does not relate to any specific religion except for its monotheistic influence. However, the monotheism of the motto is not concerned with salvation, but with confidence in the role of money to act as a lubricant of the economy.
‘We’ is a reference to the people of the United States of America. It is an implicit acknowledgment to the Preamble of the Constitution: We the People. ‘We’ is an abstract notion of plurality that suggests an underlying union defined as a mystical body; a dynamic interaction between ‘We,’ ‘Trust,’ and ‘God.’ These principles are intangible concepts that exist in essence even though they cannot be perceived by the senses. The ‘Trust in God’ does not relate to any specific religion but conveys ideals of a civil religious order outlined by the symbols on the dollar as a medium of exchange.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The motto embodies a mystical union of three separate principles: ‘We,’ ‘God,’ and ‘Trust.’ These notions displayed on the dollar are explicitly related to each other as the symbolic representation of the US economy.