“In God We Trust” and the stickiness of cheap religiosity and patriotism

A woman walks into a café, orders a coffee and, before she pays, crosses off “In God We Trust” on her $20 bill. The woman is me, and scratching the motto off money is something I often do.

dollar bill showing "In God We Trust"So begins Greta Christina’s column in the current issue of The Humanist. She’s writing about “How Confrontationalism Can Open Doors.” I’m usually not very confrontational myself, but the column got me to thinking about examples of mandatory or semi-mandatory acts of public religiosity and patriotism, and how resilient they can be once they’re in place. A few examples:

  • National anthem before sporting events. First occurred during the 1918 World Series, but didn’t become a feature of regular-season baseball games until World War II, and spread to other sports from there.
  • “In God We Trust.” First appeared on U.S. coins in 1864 (during the Civil War), became the nation’s official motto in 1956, and has appeared on paper money since 1957.
  • “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Added in 1954. The pledge itself was written in 1892, revised over the years and formally adopted by Congress in 1942.
  • Flag etiquette. The National Flag Code was drafted under the auspices of The American Legion in 1923, and adopted as a public law in 1942. I learned this after noticing a World War I-era parade photo in which none of the men had removed their hats before the passing color guard; that wasn’t the tradition then. Oddly enough, when Congress adopted the flag code in 1942, it replaced the stiff-armed Bellamy salute with the now-familiar hand-over-the-heart to avoid similarities to the Nazi and Italian fascist salutes.

    Students perform Bellamy salute

    American students pledging allegiance to the flag with the Bellamy salute, 1941. Source: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/rise_of_american_fascism.htm, via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Flag lapel pins. According to a 2008 Time magazine article, flag pins were unknown before the mid-twentieth century. Richard Nixon and his staff began wearing them after seeing Robert Redford with one in his 1972 film The Candidate. George W. Bush and his staff started wearing them after 9/11, and Barack Obama caught flak for briefly sporting an unpatriotic lapel during his 2008 presidential campaign. He wears a flag pin to this day.
  • Flag stickers on football helmets. Appeared after September 11, 2001.
  • Saying “God bless America” at the end of presidential speeches. Nixon said it once in a speech about Watergate, but it only became the de rigeur conclusion to presidential speeches after Ronald Reagan began saying it in 1981.

What’s surprising is how recent these traditions are. Most of them began in a time of war (or the Cold War) and outlived not only the conflict itself, but also the memory of the tradition’s origin. (I had to look all of these up, even checking the post-9/11 practices to confirm my recollections.)

Why have these traditions proved so “sticky”? I’d suggest that it’s because they’re easy, vague, and visble.

Being easy protects them from laziness, that reliable enemy of long-term fanatical devotion. You just stand up for a song, or say some words—or better yet, somebody else says them and all you have to do is listen.

Vagueness keeps them from being too divisive. As much as some Americans might like to see this:

it’s not going to happen. But “In God We Trust” is vague enough to include everyone but the non-religious, an insignificant minority (until recently).

And finally, visibility not only makes these traditions a handy marker of tribal loyalty, but also makes them almost impossible to discontinue quietly. As President Obama found out, it’s just easier to wear the damn pin. And for private citizens without bodyguards, trying to end a tradition—even one that the courts have already struck down—can be downright scary. (See this article about sixteen-year-old Jessica Ahlquist if you’re not already familiar with her case.)

The result is a slow accretion of little totems and ceremonies, none of which require any actual religiosity or patriotism. The flag lapel pin is the perfect example. It’s a badge, and that’s really what this is all about: a collection of badges by which we assure each other that we’re the kind of people that we believe we ought to be—whether we really are or not. And woe to the person who questions either the value of the badges, or the ideals they represent.

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