On Tuesday, a group of atheists filed a lawsuit to prohibit the engraving of “In God We Trust” on the new Capitol Visitor Center. As a former atheist once enraged by the “under God” clause in the Pledge of Allegiance, I can understand why people would file a lawsuit to keep religion out of the public sphere. Yet as a Christian, I can also understand why one might believe that devotion to God should trump the desire to be completely inclusive.
If the question is merely one of recognizing the history of our nation, it is easily remedied; although many atheists claim that the inclusion of religion in the public sphere began only during the 1950s to juxtapose Christian America with atheist communist Russia, history clearly indicates otherwise. The difficulty lies in the fact that many atheists use half-truths to defend these claims.
“In God We Trust” was added to paper money in 1957; however, it had been used on coins intermittently since 1864. “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, but it had undergone multiple revisions since its first writing in 1892. While it is true that the constitution contains not a single reference to God, the Declaration of Independence makes numerous references to the “Creator,” “Nature’s God,” and “the Supreme Judge of the world.” In fact, America’s state constitutions are riddled with references to God and divinity. Finally, though our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” makes no mention of God in its famous first verse, it appeals to Him in its conclusion: “Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.” Simply put, if the Capitol Visitor Center intends to remind visitors of the history of the United States, it should recognize the importance of belief in God to Americans past and present.
Nevertheless, I have to wonder if we, as Christians, shouldn’t simply let the government do whatever it wants. To me, it seems wiser to avoid wasting millions on repeated lawsuits over the issue than to secure the presence of those words on our buildings. After all, the buildings themselves will decay and fall apart; the majority of visitors will glance over their words, not recognizing their power. Maybe we should just “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” and focus on spiritual battles that actually matter.
Many Christian conservatives feel the need to defend America against the onslaught of atheism by including scripture and God in the public eye as much as possible. I think this strategy has been ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. My own atheism was galvanized by issues like taking “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance, because I resented the government’s imposing a particular belief system. Christians should compromise on unimportant issues like engravings on buildings instead of angering atheists by attempting to inculcate religious sensibility within the public sphere.
Most importantly, we should remember the motto of which we are reminded any time we pull out our wallets: “In God We Trust.” It is God Who is important – not allusions to Him on our buildings, in our founding documents, or on our money. Perhaps compromising means that the state will be stripped of religion. This is not the worst thing that could happen in the history of Christendom; it is trivial compared to the sufferings of the early Church and the oppression of Christians in other parts of the world. Although we may want the United States to be Winthrop’s shining ‘city on a hill’, we should not be placing our trust in worldly, transient governments. For we place our trust in God, and everything else – our coins, our Constitution, the Capitol Visitor’s Center, and the American government – will soon pass away.