There are many things about these United States that stick in the craw of atheists, and one of them is the requirement that “In God We Trust” be emblazoned on all of our currency, both paper and specie. Their hearts are warmed at the thought that, like the Euro, any references to God would be expunged from our currency. And they’re hoping that someday that magic lawsuit (or more accurately the right mix of judges) would grant them their wish, not only about our currency but also about everything else in American life.
It’s interesting to note that our currency has not always carried this motto. The first time it did was in 1864, during the Civil War, when the Union, in its efforts to free the slaves (among other things) ran short of specie for everyday commerce. So it devised the two cent piece, with the motto at the top of the reverse. Theists, while Sherman marched to the sea and Grant tightened his grip on Richmond and Petersburg, literally got their two cents worth in, although it was years later that the motto was extended to all United States currency.
Whether atheists would forego the freeing of the slaves in order to achieve their agenda is a question they would have to answer. But that’s not the only conundrum facing such people. The motto “In God We Trust” is an expression of faith, the traditional faith of the vast majority of the American people. But wiping this off of American currency will not eliminate the element of faith with regards to our money. Our paper money has another statement of faith at its top, and that is “Federal Reserve Note.” It has been many years since our currency has been backed by physical assets of one kind or another, or for that matter our coinage contain precious metals which approached or achieved its stated monetary value. But that last declaration of faith, along with “United States of America” on all of our money, is the basis not only for its acceptance as legal tender, but also for the dollar being the world’s reserve currency.
The history of faith based currency—starting with FDR, coursing through the Bretton Woods system, to Richard Nixon’s abandonment of fixing the value of the dollar to gold and onward to the present—is a story better told elsewhere. But the simple fact is that, for the lifetime of most Americans, the value and acceptance of U.S. currency has been based on people’s faith. That faith in turn is grounded on two things: their basic confidence in the U.S. and its wealth generating capability, and faith in those who manage the currency to do so properly.
Both of these pillars have been shaky lately. The U.S.’ inability to meaningfully restart its economy—in spite of or because of TARP, the 2009 stimulus, QE1 and QE2—has challenged the unalloyed confidence people have had in this country’s ability to remain the anchor man of the economic world and its status as the safe haven. The recent debt downgrade indicates that the financial world finally realizes that the long term dysfunction of American government and politics really do have consequences (took long enough…) And frankly improvement on neither front is in sight.
Loosening such faith places us in uncharted waters. It reminds one of the old Renaissance drawing of a man, previously in the safe Ptolemaic, earth-centered universe, poking his head into the new Copernican cosmos where planets orbited around the sun and the stars were no longer fixed in finite spheres. Atheists and secularists tell us that this is the kind of progress one should expect when science marches forward, and they rejoice.
But deities are always the most dispensable when they’re not yours, and the sad truth is that it’s the atheists’ favorite deity—the state—which is on the line these days. To a large extent the state has displaced God in Europe, and this process is proceeding on this side of the Atlantic—that is, as long as the state can perpetuate two illusions: a) the illusion of democratic process, that people have a say in the way things are done whether they actually do or not, and b) the illusion of the ability to provide the basics of life, which in turn is dependent upon the “limitless” resources of the state. Both are jeopardized in this new outgoing tide of faith, which will leave many ships of state high and dry.
The last time atheists had command of the situation, we had the state controlled currencies of the Marxist-Leninist states. (Marx had predicted that the state would wither away in the dictatorship of the proletariat, but that’s another atheistic promise that didn’t get fulfilled…) For the Soviet Union that ended badly with the bankruptcy of the nation, a superpower default that haunts the present situation as an uninvited and unwanted guest. China has attempted a more gradual transition for the renminbi, but their mercantilist ambitions cloud the long term course of becoming a truly world currency.
But all of this tour of the history of fiat currency underscores the whole point of this diatribe: getting “In God We Trust” off of the currency will not eliminate the element of faith—or religion—in our finances, it will only change the altar at which we might worship. That in turn illustrates an important point about postmodern atheism and secularism: far from being an escape from religion, it simply mandates a change in same. Is this progress? I don’t think so.
For the Christian, our hope and faith is in God, and that should and must transcend whatever secondary faiths we pick up along the way. As N.T. Wright likes to say, one point of the New Testament is that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. We spend far too much time in the church talking about God as our shield of protection around us from natural phenomena when we should concentrate on same shield from human stupidity. (Sometimes that stupidity is our own!) When we grasp the full meaning of that, we will have come a long way in our quest to advance our own faith.
In the meanwhile, “In God we trust, all others pay cash.” That is, if they come up with a cash we can spend…