In God we trust?

Every school in South Dakota must now display the motto “In God We Trust” in a prominent location. I have two problems with this: a God problem and a trust problem.

South Dakota’s legislature passed the law, joining other states with similar rules including Kentucky. Now every student will be confronted with a statement about God upon entering the school.

The God problem

This is America. You can worship any God you want, and you’re also free to worship no God at all. Gallup surveys say that one in ten Americans don’t believe in God; University of Kentucky researchers analyzed the data and estimate with a high likelihood that the number is greater than 20%, because so many atheists are afraid to tell the truth in surveys.

Suffice it to say that this is a stigmatized minority.

The Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment (you know, the Amendment that guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of religion) reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

In case you think the states have a loophole, the Incorporation Doctrine, in force since the 1870s, states that the same rules applies to state governments.

So how is the state of South Dakota able to require a religious slogan in every school?

Despite court challenges, the current finding of the Supreme Court is that so long as the action doesn’t establish a particular religion, it’s fine. So “In Christ we trust” or “In Allah we trust” would be a problem, but “In God we trust” is allowed.

I’m not buying it.

Atheists are protected in their belief by the constitution, that includes atheist school teachers and children. I don’t want “Make America Great Again” on the wall, and I don’t want “Workers of the World Unite” up there either. Let the godly and the godless discuss it amongst themselves without the school taking sides.

Because when the government and its public schools take sides, the kids on the wrong side end up getting bullied. Including atheists.

The trust problem

Put God aside for a moment, if you possibly can. What about trust?

What does “In God we trust” actually mean?

First off, it’s written backward. Other than Yoda, nobody starts a sentence like this with the prepositional phrase. (“In Massachusetts I live?” “In freedom I believe?”)

Written normally, it would read, “We trust in God.”

Now you see the coercion. “We” is supposed to be all of us Americans. So we’re saying that Americans trust in God.

Do we?

Certainly the atheists don’t. But what about the religious people?

As of 2010, 71% of Americans said that good or bad events are part of God’s plan for them. So now we’re talking three in ten Americans who don’t “trust in God” to save them, protect them, or help them.

I thought that “God helps those who help themselves.”

But whom do you trust? Think about it. It’s probably a very short list.

I don’t trust my government. It’s going to have to prove it’s doing the right thing, and often has done the wrong thing.

I don’t trust my president. I didn’t trust the last one, either. I liked him, I expected him to do the right thing, but I sure was looking out to see if he was doing the wrong thing sometimes.

I don’t trust my town. Sometimes they don’t pick up the trash at my house. Sometimes their zoning decisions aren’t good for the town.

I don’t trust my neighbors. Oh sure, I don’t think they’re out to do bad things, and I like a lot of them, but they’re certainly capable of making mistakes or, maybe, ill will.

I didn’t trust my company or my bosses. I don’t trust my clients — I mean, I expect they’ll pay me and treat me fairly, but that’s not always the case.

Just this weekend I trusted a retail store and bought a big-ticket item and it turned out they’d put a used product in a box and sold it as new.

I don’t trust Facebook.

Here’s who I trust. I trust my wife, she has always been a help to me and wants what is best for me. I trust my parents. I trust my brother and my sister and tiny number of very close friends. I am learning to trust my children, although their judgment is still evolving.

That’s the complete list. If I start counting on my fingers, I have a few still left at the end.

If you trust a larger group than that, you’re going to get taken. Sure, operate in an open way, but don’t just trust.

And as for God, I don’t know how far your trust goes. Maybe you trust God completely. Maybe you trust God but also yourself. Maybe you believe in God but don’t count on God to help you make decisions. Or, maybe, you don’t believe in God at all.

If you trust in God completely, that’s fine for you. But I don’t think you get to tell the rest of us who we trust. Choosing who to trust and how much is as American as baseball and freedom of religion.

So let’s not emblazon statements about trusting in God on school walls, okay?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. I commend your perspective, Josh, and agree that words matter. You conclude by saying,

    “I trust my wife, she has always been a help to me and wants what is best for me. I trust my parents. I trust my brother and my sister and tiny number of very close friends.”

    Many of us feel similarly as witnesses to the unconditional love of spouses, parents and friends. I, therefore, concluded long ago that love is less a noun than a verb – “the way, the truth and the life”, not coincidentally what the Bible, instructs as God.

    Should the sign read, “In love we trust”?

  2. As a member of that stigmatized–but growing–minority, I thank you for addressing this issue directly. Also, bringing up Yoda is always a point in the positive column.

    1. Interesting: “The belief in American religiosity that put ‘In God We Trust’ on coins and made it the national motto in the 1950s had emerged over several decades. Conservative businessmen had allied with ministers, including Billy Graham, to combat the social welfare policies and government expansion that began with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. These wide-ranging programs, designed to tackle the Great Depression, irked many conservatives. They objected to government intervention in business and Roosevelt’s support for labor unions.
      As Kruse notes, this alliance of conservative business leaders and ministers linked ‘faith, freedom, and free enterprise.'”
      Alliteration wins the day. To me it is less about God (morality, compassion) and more about the worship of money…Daily diversion/dog whistle…

  3. Agree…..
    In addition to atheists, add faiths that are not monotheistic – for example, pagans or Hindus.

    Trust is not unconditional; it must be earned. My government has not earned my trust.

    A similar “God problem” presents in the “Pledge of Allegiance”, which many of us recited ad nauseum in school. Despite professed “separation of church and state”, public (state funded) schools require kids to recite this.

  4. As a devout atheist, I find this particularly disturbing. Enough so that I am joining the Freedom From Religion Foundation ( to do what I can for the cause.

    Incidentally, I trust only me.

  5. Thank you for calling out this infringement on the intellectual freedom of those who do not assent to this mantra. As as a confirmed atheist who from age seven regarded the whole notion of religion as delusory, and hence resented the obligatory Eisenhower addendum to the Pledge (the loss of trust came later), I hope more enthusiastic heretics will have the courage to resist such incursions and indoctrinations.