HOLY FIAT

01.24.16 5:01 AM ET

‘In God We Trust’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

The mention of God on U.S. currency is back in federal courts, this time because an atheist considers “In God We Trust” a burden. But it’s far from the only religious reference.

This month a Sacramento-based emergency-room doctor filed a federal lawsuit seeking to remove all references to God from U.S. currency.

In his lawsuit, Michael Newdow argues that the motto “In God We Trust” places a “substantial burden” on atheists. In a statement that might seem ironic, Newdow argues that it is burdensome for atheists “to personally bear a religious message that is the antithesis of what they consider to be religious truth.”

This isn’t Newdow’s first foray into religious freedom legislation. In 2004 he gained notoriety for his attempt to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s not even his first attempt to alter U.S. currency: 10 years ago he unsuccessfully argued in front of a federal judge that its use amounts to a religious affirmation.

The use of the phrase “In God We Trust” in U.S. currency first appeared in 1864. Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury in the middle of the Civil War, received a letter from a Pennsylvanian minister requesting some recognition of God in a national motto. The phrase found its way onto all U.S. currency in the thick of the Cold War (around the same time, and for the same reasons, that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance). As part of the cultural war on godless communism, a 1955 congressional vote elected to place the motto on all U.S. money. Certainly in some respects Newdow is correct to see the motto as a modern innovation.

If removing religious affiliations from U.S. currency is the goal, you have to wonder if Newdow has missed the 100-pound truncated pyramid in the room. The fairly innocuous phrase “In God We Trust” is far less specific than the occult imagery that currently adorns the common one dollar bill.

The most prominent iconography on the $1 are the eagle and the pyramid, which together constitute the Great Seal of the United States. The pyramid is a throwback to ancient Egypt, but is in many ways a much tamer version of the seal that Franklin and Jefferson envisioned. Noted Egyptophiles, the version that they initially supported included an Egyptian pharaoh, seated on a chariot and passing through the parted waters of the Red Sea. The motto they preferred was “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Anyone familiar with the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea can hear the thinly veiled threat. Pharaoh doesn’t stay atop that chariot for long. Franklin loved his version of the seal so much that he adopted it as his personal motto. And today the conservative right is fond of invoking Franklin’s motto in political debates.

The final design for the Great Seal, which was accepted by Congress in 1782, was presented by Charles Thomson, a Philadelphia merchant, who finalized the design by combining the ideas of three separate committees. Thomson said that the pyramid symbolized “strength and duration” and that the Latin inscription “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (A New Order of the Ages) referred to a new form of government and “the beginning of the new American Era.” The disembodied eye that floats atop the pyramid, he added, with the inscriptions “Annuit Coeptis,” refers to the ways in which Providence favored the American cause.

But others have questioned Thomson’s strait-laced explanation. They see the mottos and symbolism of the seal as emblems of the philosophical secret societies the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. Today, membership in these groups is available to almost anyone interested in paying dues; but in the 18th century these secret organizations were open only to the intellectual and social elite.

For those who subscribe to the idea that our currency is originally Masonic, there’s a lot to work with. Many of the people involved in the multi-step design for the seal (although not Thomson himself) are known Masons. For those who believe in the “new world order” (the idea that a secret powerful elite is controlling global government and commerce), the fact that those very words appear on our money is a blatant giveaway. The “all-seeing eye” perched above the pyramid is a symbol of the Great Architect of the Universe, the Masonic equivalent of a deity.

For conspiracy theorists, the Masonic imagery goes further. Even the number of feathers on the eagle’s right wing (32) can be seen as corresponding to the number of degrees in Scottish Rite Freemasonary. If such interpretations seem excessive, bear in mind that in 1894, when he was invited to consult on the adoption of the Great Seal, eminent Harvard art historian Eliot Norton disparagingly described it as a “dull emblem of a masonic fraternity.”

While the extent of Freemasonry’s influence in the founding and establishment of the United States is wildly exaggerated, almost everyone concedes that Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace (the Secretary of Agriculture) were Freemasons. And it does seem to have been the case that, for them, the imagery of the dollar bill was evocative of Masonic principles. For Wallace, the “new world order” became the “new deal.”

It’s easy to see why people argue that U.S. currency is replete with esoteric religious symbolism. And yet, oddly, atheists are not seeking to remove the eye and pyramid on the basis that they are either Freemason or ancient Egyptian symbols.

Of course the use of religious imagery and slogans is nothing new. Greek and Roman coins routinely included portraits or emblems of everyone from Cupid to Jupiter. Major cities like Athens would mint coins with their city’s favored deity (here, of course, Athena) on them. Many coins even had images of temples on them. It was precisely because Roman currency depicted the emperor as a quasi-deity that Jews prohibited its use in the Temple. The use of religious imagery continued throughout the Byzantine and Roman periods, when crosses regular appeared on coins produced all over Europe. There’s nothing new about impressing your religious beliefs on your coinage.

The symbolism on the dollar bill is certainly evocative of secret societies but even contemporary Freemasons acknowledge that imagery on the dollar bill resonates with other traditions as well. As Thomas M. Savini, director of the library at the New York Grand Lodge Headquarters, said in 2006, “We use the eye, but opticians use the eye. It makes us look ridiculous if we say it links into some Masonic connection that was not there.”

A similar kind of ambiguity surrounds the use of “In God We Trust.” It became ubiquitous only during the Cold War and could almost be considered nationalistic propaganda. It was on the basis that “In God We Trust” is more secular than religious that a federal judge threw out Newdow’s case 10 years ago.

Those concerned about the religious messaging (either mainstream or occult) of U.S. currency have options. Perhaps they should stick to credit cards or Apple Pay. The cult of Apple may be idolatrous, but it’s not religious. Not yet, anyway.