While talking about the 4-2 decision of the Huntington Beach City Council to display the national motto “In God We Trust” in Council Chambers, someone I know remarked he was surprised. When I asked him why he said, “Because I didn’t know they did.”
And perhaps some don’t. After all, it was not a unanimous decision.
Jill Hardy says it’s her Christian faith that makes her wary of the move. Hardy wanted to know more about the motivation behind the public display.
“If it’s a religious motivation,” Hardy said, “then [the motto] doesn’t really belong in City Hall.”
And if motivated by politics, the display, in her opinion, transgresses one of the Ten Commandments by “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”
No one has copped to these motivations, mind you, which may or may not be disingenuous.
But couldn’t there simply be a desire to bring our nation’s motto to the city level? If so, what’s wrong — or right — with that? I asked a few religious leaders to share their thoughts.
Pastor Ben Unseth from Huntington Beach’s Grace Lutheran Church and School first noted that our Congress approved the motto, which is true. In 1956, the 84th Congress by joint resolution approved the motto that had first been applied to the nation’s 2-cent coin in 1864.
“In God We Trust” is derived from the sixth line of the fourth stanza of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner” that says, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’” In case anyone has forgotten, Key’s song, written in 1814 during the War of 1812, is our national anthem.
The original motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum,” made no mention of God. The Latin phrase meaning “one from many” referred to one federal nation formed of many states.
Some folks who dislike the motto “In God We Trust” say Theodore Roosevelt did, too. But the charge sticks if he’s quoted only in part.
Roosevelt’s complaint was about the motto’s use on coins and its possible use on stamps. In these uses he saw an “irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.”
On the other hand, he thought we’d do well to have the motto “inscribed on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and in buildings such as those at West Point and Annapolis … wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon.”
I can’t imagine Hardy feels our city’s Council Chambers share more in common with coins than with our temples of justice.
The controversy, though, doesn’t surprise Gary Watkins, senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Huntington Beach.
He understands that some object to the motto because they don’t themselves believe in God and others contend it’s an endorsement of religion in violation of the constitutional Non-Establishment Clause.
Still, he finds it ironic that anyone who might take the matter to the Supreme Court would walk into a building bearing an image of Moses with what appear to be the Ten Commandments over its entrance and into chambers whose oak doors display a representation of two tablets bearing the Roman numerals I-X.
Watkins believes the motto “reflects the reality that we are part of something larger than ourselves” and believes it “would be affirmed by most of the people of Huntington Beach.”
Guy Grimes, senior pastor of Shoreline Baptist Church in Fountain Valley, also thinks the motto represents the beliefs of the majority of city residents. Polls, he notes, still reflect the endurance of our Judeo-Christian heritage.
Our nation, he contends, has a historical association of God and country. It’s an association I think isn’t hard to see.
There is “The Star Spangled Banner” from which the motto comes. Grimes points to “God Bless America.” If my career-Marine father were still living, he would add “Semper Fi,” which refers to the Marine pledge to always be faithful to God, country and Corps.
“I don’t think it’s any more insensitive [to have the motto in Council Chambers] than to have it on all the currency we carry in our pockets,” Grimes says.
But Pastor Bill Welsh of Refuge Calvary Chapel here in Surf City has wondered how long it might be before there is a lawsuit “over the appearance of the word ‘God’ on public property.”
Dan Nehrbass, one of three pastors at Fountain Valley United Methodist Church, has a bachelor’s in classical civilization from UCI along with a master’s in theology from Talbot, a master’s in ministerial studies from Indiana Wesleyan and a master’s of divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Perhaps that’s why he connected the significance of the motto “In God We Trust” with the anti-communist era during which it replaced “E Pluribus Unum.”
Communism, he explained, is “a social application of a deeper philosophy” credited to the German Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Known as the dialectic, it assumes there is no sovereign being in the universe. Absent a sovereign God, Karl Marx argued, the government would better serve as a sovereign power than any individual could. In a communist state, there can be no God because there cannot be two sovereign powers.
In the ’50s, Nehrbass said, “some astute Americans recognized this profound truth.” They saw that the motto “In God We Trust” not only rejected communism but also acknowledged that in the absence of a sovereign God someone would attempt to assume that place.
“No American,” Nehrbass says, “wants to see that happen.”
Unseth is surprised that some city leaders have a problem with the display of the congressionally approved motto.
“I think it expresses both conscience and humility simultaneously,” he says, “and those are good values for us to be thinking about when deciding on community issues.”
Given the behavior of some of our former mayors and certain council members, I might prefer the motto be “In God We Fear.” But short of that, I’ll take “In God We Trust.”
MICHÈLE MARR is a freelance writer from Huntington Beach. She can be reached at email@example.com.