Since 1956, “In God we trust” has been the official motto of the United States, displayed on our federal buildings and our currency – and it should stay that way. This has nothing to do with contemporary religion, but rather America’s history and civics.
As President Trump declared in his first State of the Union address that “Our [America’s] motto is ‘in God we trust,’” outraged ensued, reigniting the debate over references to God as it relates to government. Many have advocated for the removal of all such references, contending that the placement of “God” constitutes the sponsorship of religion, thus violating the First Amendment. Others have raised concerns that the official motto is antithetical to the unofficial motto, “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one.)
However, the placement of such phrases has little to do with any existing religious institution, but has everything to do with honoring the customs embedded in our founding document and the framework of our government: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It was Judeo-Christian values, ethics, traditions, customs, and principles that allowed for the United States government to exist.
Social Contract Theory: Saint Thomas Aquinas & Thomas Hobbes
When you ask somebody why they believe a government is necessary, they will most likely answer that bedlam would permeate society without governance, as criminals have no incentive to respect the bodily integrity, well-being, and property rights of other people. That answer, while simple, is the product of much deliberation over the “natural state” of mankind. Much of the significant theorizing about this subject was done by Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher known for his political thought.
Hobbes hypothesized that mankind in its natural state would erupt into chaos and thus, we need a government to restrict us – but restrict them from doing what? It was here that Judeo-Christian ethics were called upon, particularly the theological doctrine of “natural rights” developed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Catholic priest. Aquinas synthesized Aristotelian philosophy to produce his theory of natural law.
This theory of natural law began when Aquinas theorized that the universe – what he calls “the cosmos,” were once unified with God. However, after the fall of man when Adam and Eve became disobedient towards God, the cosmos fell out of its union and needed to be redeemed. In order to do so, Aquinas contended that an external law – natural law, which is directed by God, plays a role in this eventual redeeming. This natural law is universal in that it exists everywhere, operating outside of legislatures, courts, and/or executives that direct humanity toward this redeeming. Aquinas hypothesized that these laws were:
- “Anything good, that which perfects human nature, is to be pursued”
- “The opposite of [good], evil, is to be avoided in all human acts”
It was during the Enlightenment that philosophers expounded upon the principle of natural law, beginning to incorporate natural rights, or as known in America, “unalienable rights.” Hobbes, drawing upon this theory of natural rights, developed his social contract theory in which the government exists for the purpose of protecting these rights. According to Hobbes, this was the only ethical way to impose authority onto a free people. This philosophy is found embedded in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form…”
The Declaration of Independence, drawing upon Hobbes’ philosophy, articulates that the only reason for the United States government to exist is to protect the peoples’ unalienable rights – known to Enlightenment philosophers as natural rights – from encroachment by other civilians. Natural rights are a deeply Judeo-Christian concept, as religious doctrine was used by Aquinas to develop natural law, which served as the basis for hypotheses over what constituted natural rights. In turn, these natural rights serve as the reason for the existence of a government. In summary, the need for the United States government was born out of the Judeo-Christian tradition of natural law.
Natural Rights: Saint Irenaeus & John Locke
These natural rights, as per the Declaration of Independence, are “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” With “Happiness” meaning “prosperity, thriving, [and] well-being.” As per the social contract theory, the United States government is obligated to protect these rights, of which were also born out of Judeo-Christian ethics.
These rights as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, were derived from the philosophy of John Locke, a highly influential English Enlightenment philosopher. Locke, in a deviation from Hobbes, did not believe humans were naturally malevolent. Rather, that people had the potential to be malevolent and thus, a government must exist to protect natural rights. This was already established by Hobbes, but it was Lockean philosophy over what qualifies as natural rights that heavily influenced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Locke believed that governments exist to defend, “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions,” each of which were a right derived from his interpretation of Judeo-Christian texts.
One of Locke’s most influential contributions to the American tradition was that everybody in society was entitled to natural rights, which Locke interpreted from the theological doctrine of Imago Dei. Imago Dei (translated as “Image of God”) is the doctrine developed largely by Saint Irenaeus, contending that mankind was made in the likeness of God, of which was not impacted by the fall. Irenaeus drew this conclusion from Genesis 1:26-27:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Through this text, Irenaeus concluded that God was an essential element within the creation of all people, and while several subsequent thinkers further expounded upon the minutia of Irenaeus’ philosophy, Imago Dei drove Locke’s theory of natural rights. Locke maintained that because each human was created from the same likeness, they are all equal, meaning that natural law pertains to everyone. This philosophy was echoed in the Declaration of Independence, as well:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
The specification of men being created equal as “self-evident” is a reference to John Locke’s philosophy, of which was derived from the aforementioned theological doctrine of Imago Dei. However, equality is one of the five natural rights interpreted by Locke. Also included in this list were life, liberty, health, and property, each of which were also derived from religious text.
Life, property, and health emanate from the Ten Commandments: life is derived from “Thou shalt not murder;” property from “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not covet;” and health from the spirit of the commandments, which serve to protect one’s general honor (health) in the eyes of God. Liberty was less explicitly mentioned in the Bible, rather taking form as a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament. In one story, God delivered Israeli slaves from bondage in Egypt. Following this, Jesus preached in his inaugural speech:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
These rights were also reflected in the Declaration of Independence, as well as in the Bill of Rights. The Declaration of Independence articulates a list of rights nearly identical to those enumerated by Locke.
Not only does this affirm religion’s central role to the Declaration of Independence, but also religion’s important role in the Bill of Rights, as the purpose of these first ten amendments is to protect unalienable rights from government encroachment. In effect, the Bill of Rights is protecting unalienable rights from the government, as opposed to other civilians. Furthermore, in the most explicit reference to religion, all unalienable rights afforded to United States citizens are endowed to them by God.
In short, our government has one job: to protection unalienable rights. These rights are derived from the theological doctrines articulated by Saint Irenaeus and John Locke, once again affirming the essential role religion played in forming the basic duty of the United States government.
Charles de Montesquieu: Separation of Powers
The most fundamental mechanic of the United States government is the separation of powers into three distinct entities known as branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial. This separation is designed to prevent one person or one group of people, from becoming too powerful, as this may give way to tyranny. Such a system is enforced through a system of checks and balances, through which each branch has some power over the other two branches, rendering abuses by one branch preventable through another branch. This tripartite system was hypothesized by Charles de Montesquieu, who largely wasn’t religious, but the founding fathers adopted his system for religious reasons.
Having endured tyranny at the hands of the British empire, Americans were very familiar with how powerful people behaved when no systems of restraints were applied to them. Thus, the founding fathers drew upon the tripartite system. It was during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution that James Madison was tasked with defending such a system in Federalist No. 51, writing:
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administrated by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the govern; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
In short: humans are imperfect, and when we are granting such humans power over others, there is a chance that their imperfect nature may get the better them, leading to power being exercised to malevolent ends.
The founding fathers were deeply religious people, and was instilled with Judeo-Christian values. One of these values is that humanity is imperfect, in accordance to the doctrine of original sin. Humans, by virtue of being alive, are prone to sin. Therefore, a mechanism was necessary among government officials to protect civilians.
Dennis Prager, founder of Prager University and theological author, coined the phrase “American trinity” and enunciated the importance of “in God we trust” as an integral aspect of America, reiterating the notion of Judeo-Christianity forming the basis of the government.
In short, this is not about what the majority of Americans believe, it’s about the history of our country and the important role that religion played in founding our government. As President Reagan said, “If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
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