President Obama is under fire from members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus for remarks he made during a recent speech in Indonesia. Apparently the president said that “E Pluribus Unum” is a good summary of the American experience.
The phrase means “out of many, one.” The prayer caucus took exception, claiming that “In God We Trust” is actually the national motto.
Please excuse the president for knowing history.
The incident reminded me of a conversation I had with my wife a few years ago. We were watching the movie classic, “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” When the movie came out in 1945, it was quite a hit. It was eventually nominated for seven Oscars.
Bing Crosby had the lead role playing the affable and wise Father O’Malley. Ingrid Bergman was cast as Sister Benedict, the mother superior of a failing inner city Catholic school. O’Malley had been assigned to discover whether the school should be saved or sold to a wealthy developer who owned land next door.
I won’t give away the ending, but there was one striking moment in the movie that is worth some reflection. The scene features O’Malley observing a class about to begin morning lessons. The teacher instructs the boys and girls to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
As the children got to the “one nation” part of the pledge, they went immediately to “indivisible.” My wife looked at me and said, “They didn’t say ‘under God.'”
That’s because the words “under God” were not part of the Pledge of Allegiance in 1945. The mention of God did not enter the pledge until 1954. The following year Congress also adopted the phrase “In God We Trust” for addition to all coins and currency. In 1956, the national motto was changed from “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust.”
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Our nation was going through quite an ordeal in the 1950s. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy was finding communists under every basket. He contributed to a general hysteria that Communism, with its inherent atheism, was about to sweep across America. Congress decided that infusing some God language into our public life would protect us from the godless scourge.
Unfortunately, in doing so, that 1954 Congress betrayed our founders’ vision. The framers of our Constitution intentionally kept God language out of our founding documents. Thomas Jefferson did mention a “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. But what Jefferson meant by Creator is not what most Christians mean when they say “God.” Jefferson did not believe in a God who would intervene in human affairs.
Adding God language to the pledge would have shocked the framers of the Constitution. They had worked diligently to keep religion out of our founding documents – and with good reason. In Europe, prior to the creation of our republic, religion had functioned as a bloody, divisive force.
In other words, the founders would have been pleased with a pledge that stated, “One nation, indivisible.” That’s because they knew that a nation that tried to be “under God” would be easily divisible. “God” means too many things to too many people. Trying to unify a country around a religious ideal only brings discord – as is evident in the news every day.
Far wiser is the course our founders chose. Create unity around the promise of freedom, including religious freedom. That way we can pursue our understanding of God while allowing others to do the same.
If we are united around the common ideal of freedom, we can be truly indivisible as a nation. And our varied prayers and acts of worship will serve to demonstrate the wisdom of the saying, “out of many, one.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.