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How Mississippi Preacher Donald Wildmon Is Using The National Motto To Batter The Church-State Wall

The Rev. Donald Wildmon was beside himself with glee. The Religious Right leader, who runs the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., hates the separation of church and state and has long sought a way to force his religious viewpoint into America's public schools.

Last year Wildmon stumbled upon what he believes is a can't-miss idea: States and local school boards, he asserts, should pass laws requiring public schools to post signs reading, "In God We Trust." Since the phrase serves as the national motto and appears on coins and paper money, Wildmon is certain its display in public schools would not be declared unconstitutional.

"Our national motto reflects the belief which our forefathers held, that trust in God is the bedrock precept of this noble experiment we call America," Wildmon wrote in a column posted on the AFA's website ( "The ACLU and liberal judges may not allow the posting of the Ten Commandments, but they cannot prohibit the posting of our national motto!"

Wildmon promised to take the campaign nationwide. Coincidentally, his group just happens to be selling 11-by-14 inch "In God We Trust" posters (three for $10 postpaid) to facilitate the drive.

The right-wing Mississippi preacher announced the crusade last year, but so far it hasn't exactly ripped through the country like a buzz saw. In March, Wildmon's home state became the first to approve posting "In God We Trust" in public schools. Signing the legislation, Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) remarked, "Our nation was founded as a godly nation, and we put it on our money: `In God We Trust.'"

The Mississippi law requires the slogan to be inside a frame at least 11-by-14 inches, although it provides no state money for the purchase of the signs. The AFA has said it will donate them to state schools. The state branch of the ACLU is considering a lawsuit.

The "In God We Trust" campaign has popped up in a handful of other states as well. Recent developments include:

* Colorado: Last July the Colorado State Board of Education voted 5-1 to endorse Wildmon's drive, becoming the first state to do so. However, the Jefferson County Board of Education, the largest school district in the state, voted 5-0 one month later to reject a proposal to display the posters.

* Georgia: The phrase "In God We Trust" will soon appear on the Georgia flag. Legislators spent much of this year wrangling over the state flag, which has engendered controversy because it incorporates the Confederate battle flag. Lawmakers agreed to redesign the flag and during the process approved an amendment offered by state Rep. James Mills (R-Gainesville) adding the words "In God We Trust" to the new design.

Religious Right activists in Georgia also promoted a "character education" curriculum that aimed to teach "respect for the Creator" as one of its tenets. Part of the plan called for displaying posters in public schools that included images of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as well as the phrase "In God We Trust." State education officials spiked the scheme.

* Virginia: Legislators debated a bill requiring the posting of "In God We Trust" in all of the state's public schools. Although the measure passed the House of Delegates earlier this year, it floundered before a Senate committee and died. The House sponsor, Del. Robert Marshall (R-Manassas), has promised to re-introduce it next year.

* Tennessee: State Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston) introduced measures to require the posting of "In God We Trust" in public schools and government buildings and to add the phrase to the state flag. Other lawmakers argued that the state had more important matters to consider, and both bills failed to pass.

* Kansas: The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas last year filed a lawsuit against Shawnee County Treasurer Rita Cline, who put up "In God We Trust" posters at two of her offices. The ACLU brought suit on behalf of Mary Lou Schmidt, a local resident who is a Pagan. Schmidt said that when she complained about the posters, Cline sent her a letter full of evangelical Christian references, called her "godless" and urged her to convert.

Last December, U.S. District Judge Sam Crow, in a decision highly hostile to Schmidt's claims, dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous. He also ruled that Cline could recover her legal fees from the ACLU.

Some of these examples deal with the display of the phrase at government buildings, but Wildmon has made it clear he wants to get the motto up in public schools. Can his gambit succeed? Legal experts say it's too early to tell. While the use of "In God We Trust" as the national motto has survived court challenges, it does not necessarily follow that public schools can promote the religious affirmation.

Church-state attorneys note that legislatures and state governments have some leeway to engage in activities that might be considered unconstitutional at public schools. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that state legislatures can pay chaplains to open their deliberations with prayer, an activity that remains unconstitutional at public schools. Generally speaking, courts have held that public schools, which often serve impressionable youngsters, may not sponsor religious worship, activities or messages.

Religious Right activists have long argued that use of "In God We Trust" as the national motto and display of the phrase on American money means that church-state separation was never intended by the Founders. That contention, however, is entirely without basis. Adoption of the motto dates back only to 1956, and its use on coins started during the Civil War, not the founding period.

How did "In God We Trust" earn its current status? It all started with money. Visitors to the U.S. Mint's website ( find a four-paragraph explanation. According to the Mint, in 1861 "a minister" wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury and made the suggestion, which was quickly implemented.

That's the Mint's sanitized version. The real story is a good deal more complicated and centers on an anti-separationist organization that can fairly be called the 19th-century version of the Christian Coalition.

That group was the National Reform Association (NRA), an openly theocratic outfit that sprang up during the Civil War with an aggressive agenda to mix church and state and remove any notion of a separation between the two institutions. It's largely due to the NRA's machinations that "In God We Trust" adorns our money today.

One thing is clear: Despite popular belief and misinformation from the Religious Right, the phrase does not spring from the founding period. It was never proposed or suggested by any of the framers. In fact, early U.S. coinage -- like the Constitution itself -- was secular and contained no mention of God, Jesus Christ or Christianity.

In 1776, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson designed a great seal of the United States and put forth "E Pluribus Unum" (a Latin phrase translated as "from many, one") as the national motto. Congress rejected the seal but adopted the motto. It began appearing on U.S. coins as early as 1795.

Secular money and a secular government did not sit well with some people, and by the middle of the 19th century conservative Christians had gained enough support to press for changes through the NRA. Composed primarily of fundamentalist Protestant ministers, the NRA believed that the bloody Civil War had been God's punishment on the nation for failing to recognize the deity in the Constitution. The group set about to fix that oversight by adding a "Christian nation" amendment.

The NRA's proposal was not subtle. It would have had the U.S. government recognize "the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among nations," boldly declaring "his will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government."

The United States was heavily Protestant at this time, and the NRA had no difficulty putting together a grassroots movement with some real muscle. NRA activists engineered the introduction of the amendment in Congress several times in the latter half of the 19th century but failed to secure the two-thirds votes in both chambers needed for passage.

The NRA's agenda, however, went beyond the "Christian nation" amendment. The group also sought strict Sunday laws, worked to keep repressive anti-divorce statutes in place, advocated mandatory Bible reading in public schools and, eventually, sought recognition of God on U.S. coinage. With these issues it enjoyed much more success.

The NRA had members and supporters in powerful positions, including several in elected offices. In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed former Pennsylvania governor James Pollock as director of the Mint. Pollock was active in the formation of the NRA two years later and would go on to play a key role in subsequent developments.

Late in 1861, a Baptist minister in Pennsylvania, the Rev. Mark Richard Watkinson, wrote a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, bemoaning the lack of "the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins" Watkinson had big ideas and went so far as to recommend a new design for the reverse of U.S. coins. It should feature, he wrote, 13 stars, an all-seeing eye topped by a halo and a flag with the words "God, liberty, law" written on its bars.

Watkinson was sure his design would "make a beautiful coin to which no possible citizen would object." Such a coin, he advised Chase, "would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us under the divine protection we have personally claimed...."

Chase, who had received similar letters from other members of the clergy and the public, liked the idea of adding God to the coinage but was apparently less enthusiastic about Watkinson's proposed design. He directed Pollock to take action on the motto only. In a letter to the Mint director, Chase asserted, "No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in his defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing ... this national recognition."

Given his involvement with the NRA, Pollock was only too happy to comply and began pressing for the change immediately. In an 1863 report, Pollock wrote, "We claim to be a Christian nation -- why should we not vindicate our character by honoring the God of Nations in the exercise of our political Sovereignty as a Nation?"

But there was one problem: A federal law of 1837 barred the use of new phrases on coins. To get around this, Pollock and his allies engineered amending the law in 1864. They had a measure introduced in Congress that dealt mainly with weights and measures of one-cent coins but that also contained a key section authorizing the production of a new tv/o-cent piece. This new law also gave the director of the Mint authority to determine "the shape, mottoes and devices of said coins."

Pollock now had license to add a new motto to at least one coin. Originally, he suggested using either "Our God and Our Country" or "God, Our Trust" on the coin, but Chase overruled him in favor of "In God We Trust." Pollock promptly ordered the motto added to the two-cent piece; 26 million of them were minted. The following year, Pollock engineered passage of a law authorizing the use of the phrase on three-cent pieces. After that, the God motto gradually began appearing on coins of other denominations.

Things remained quiet until the turn of the century. But controversy flared anew in 1905 after President Theodore Roosevelt directed the Mint to contract with the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to come up with new designs for the nation's coins. On aesthetic grounds, Saint-Gaudens disliked the use of "In God We Trust" on the coinage and proposed leaving it off. Roosevelt was also no fan of the phrase; he argued that it cheapened religion to have a God motto on money and recommended instead using only "E Pluribus Unum."

In a letter dated Nov. 11, 1907, Roosevelt responded to a minister who had written to him expressing dismay over the omission of "In God We Trust" on the new coins. "My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does not good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege," Roosevelt asserted.

Coins were minted without the religious motto, but public outcry was swift and strong. Roosevelt quickly reversed himself and agreed to sign legislation mandating that "In God We Trust" appear on all U.S. coins. Congress duly passed the bill, and Roosevelt signed it into law on May 18, 1908.

Coins remained the most popular medium of exchange in the United States until the beginning of the 20th century. As paper money became more common, a drive was launched to make sure "In God We Trust" would appear on dollars of various denominations as well. President Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed the idea in 1955, and a bill quickly passed Congress requiring the use of the phrase on paper money. It has appeared on all notes since October of 1957.

During the Civil War, supporters of the use of the phrase "In God We Trust" on currency argued that it would mitigate the results of that divisive conflict. By the 1950s, a different argument had arisen: This time, the religious motto was designed to fend off communism.

Speaking on behalf of Eisenhower's proposal in 1955, U.S. Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) insisted that the motto was needed "in these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom." Seeing the phrase on money, the legislator argued, would remind people that "as long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail."

Less than a year later, the same forces in Congress banded together to declare "In God We Trust" the national motto. Legislation establishing this, H.R. Res. 396, was introduced on March 22, 1956, and stormed through the House and Senate. The American Humanist Association lodged a protest, but its concerns were ignored, and Eisenhower signed the measure into law on July 30, 1956. (About two years earlier, on June 14, 1954, Eisenhower, at the behest of a lobbying effort spearheaded by the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion, signed legislation passed by Congress that added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.)

There have been a few legal challenges to the federal government use of "In God We Trust" over the years. In 1970, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case Aronow v. United States rejected the argument that use of the phrase as the national motto and its placement on money violate the First Amendment. The motto, the court ruled, "is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise."

Eight years later, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the head of American Atheists, filed suit against the government's use of "In God We Trust" in federal court for the Western District of Texas. But the court, citing the decision from the 9th Circuit, rejected her argument, a ruling that was later upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. (O'Hair v. Blumenthal.)

Despite these legal setbacks, atheists and some civil libertarians still occasionally raise the issue. Last year, two Ohio residents, August Brunsman and Robert Nekervis, launched a website called, described as a "grass roots movement aimed at helping the average American fight for their religious liberty" The two sell a small stamp with the phrase "Keep Church and State Separate" that they urge people to use to stamp over the God motto on the back of paper money.

Today the issue of "In God We Trust" as the national motto and its appearance on coins and currency is largely dormant. That may change if Religious Right groups like the American Family Association continue with their efforts to require public schools and government buildings to post the motto.

The AFA and other Religious Right outfits have high hopes for the "In God We Trust" crusade and believe it will pave the way for more sectarian forms of religious displays in public schools and government buildings.

For the past few years, a number of Religious Right organizations have been promoting the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools, courthouses and other public buildings. This effort has been rebuffed due to a string of rulings from state and federal courts declaring the displays unconstitutional.

Last March, however, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc as a full panel, ruled 9-4 that the state of Ohio could use the phrase "With God, all things are possible" as its motto. Although the words are a quote from Jesus recorded in the New Testament, the court declared they were a permissible form of "civil religion" akin to the use of "In God We Trust" as the national motto. (AU's Legal Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief when the case was before a three-judge panel at the 6th Circuit, urging that the state's use of the motto be declared unconstitutional.)

The ruling in ACLU of Ohio and Peterson v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board boosted the hopes of Mathew Staver of the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based Religious Right legal group aligned with TV preacher Jerry Falwell. Staver, who is currently defending several Kentucky counties that have posted the Ten Commandments at government buildings, told the Falwell Confidential, "The Ohio state motto case will serve as very strong precedent in favor of our defense of the historical display containing the Ten Commandments. The court got it right -- acknowledgement does not amount to establishment."

But again, experts in church-state law say Staver and Falwell are reading too much into the 6th Circuit ruling. While some federal courts have permitted displays of generic forms of "civil religion" none has ever approved the devotional display of more sectarian documents like the Ten Commandments.

Last December, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2 - 1 that a Ten Commandments monument in front of municipal buildings in Elkhart, Ind., violates the First Amendment State and federal courts have also struck down Ten Commandments displays in Charleston, S.C., Manhattan, Kan., and eastern Kentucky. Legal experts note that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the mandatory display of the Ten Commandments in public schools in 1980.

Would government display of "In God We Trust" fare any better? Perhaps, but Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, says that's not the point. Lynn, a minister and an attorney, said many Americans find "God and country" rhetoric offensive. He also asserts that "civil religion" is usually so watered down as to be next to meaningless from a spiritual standpoint.

Lynn is also skeptical of assertions by Wildmon and his fellow Religious Right leaders that posting religious phrases in public schools will solve a host of social problems. "Wildmon and his cohorts treat `In God We Trust' like a magic charm," stated Lynn. "All you have to do is stick it up on a wall and suddenly we're living in utopia. They seem to have forgotten that parents and the religious leaders they choose are the proper agents to instruct children in religion, not public school teachers and government officials."

Concluded Lynn, "`In God We Trust' may be the national motto, but that doesn't mean we have to stand by and allow Religious Right groups to use it as battering ram to attack the wall of separation between church and state."

Editor's Note: Sections of this article are based on Writings by Ralph C. Reynolds, president of the Rochester, N.Y., Chapter of Americans United, and research conducted by Jim Allison and Susan Batte on "The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State Homepage" (http://members. tripod. com/candst/).


Operating from deep in the heart of Mississippi, a fundamentalist minister named Donald E. Wildmon strikes terror into the hearts of corporation executives everywhere by organizing wildly successful boycotts of firms that advertise on television shows Wildmon considers "indecent" -- or does he?

Wildmon and his Tupelo-based American Family Association (originally called the National Federation for Decency) first came to prominence in the late 1970s when he promised to clean up television. He vowed to organize boycotts against companies that placed ads on shows that he believed contained too much sexual content.

Wildmon, a 63-year-old United Methodist minister, often takes the credit when companies pull ads from certain programs, but his effectiveness has been hotly debated. Journalist Fred Clarkson reported in his 1997 book Eternal Hostility that companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Holiday Inn stood up to Wildmon's boycott threats and suffered no ill effects.

Over the years, Wildmon's AFA has become a profitable family enterprise. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the group's budget was just under $10 million, and total assets were valued at $17.5 million. In 1991, Wildmon built WAFR, a radio station in Tupelo that broadcasts via satellite to 156 stations, reaching people in 27 states with a mix of gospel music and news.

Wildmon's son, Tim, now serves as vice president of the AFA and is apparently preparing to assume the mantle of leadership when his father, who has had heart trouble, steps down.

As the group grew, it took on other issues. The AFA website contains the standard Religious Right mix of attacks on public schools, public libraries, reproductive rights and gay people. There is also an entire section, labeled the "National Clearinghouse on Marilyn Manson Info," chronicling the activities of the flamboyant shock rocker.

(Some of the AFA's recommended links are interesting, to say the least. Kjos Ministries,, is "heartily recommended" by Wildmon for its pages attacking the popular "Harry Potter" books and Pokemon cards, both of which are accused of promoting witchcraft. The Kjos site also asserts that PBS's popular "Teletubbies" program for toddlers is part of a United Nations-led plot to impose a "global agenda for lifelong learning" on the United States.)

But Wildmon's bread and butter remains blasting television sitcoms for their sexual content. He and his supporters apparently have a lot of time on their hands, as they sit and doggedly record every mention of sex in sitcoms. These are summarized in the AFA's monthly magazine, the American Family Association Journal.

It may be easy to dismiss such tactics as just a tad compulsive, but Wildmon watchers assert that he is more than just a noisy crank obsessed with sex talk on TV. They note that in 1991 the AFA's law center filed a lawsuit against a California public school district over the use of a series of readers called "Impressions."

Wildmon asserted that the books promoted humanism and witchcraft. The courts found the AFA's claims without merit, and the suit was unsuccessful. But the fuss spooked publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston, which stopped producing the series, despite the praise it had earned from many educators.

Wildmon has also been accused of dallying with anti-Semitism. During a 1985 speech before the National Religious Broadcasters, Wildmon cited a survey of top media executives conducted by two researchers, claiming that the results "indicated that 59 percent of the people who are responsible for network programming were raised in Jewish homes. If the people who control the networks in Hollywood were 59 percent Christian and if they were only 1 percent as anti-Semitic as the networks are currently anti-Christian, there would [be] a massive public outcry from the national liberal secular media."

The researchers who did the study did not support Wildmon's conclusions, and one of them later wrote to Wildmon and advised him to stop distorting its findings. Nevertheless, Wildmon continued to cite the study for the next four years. He also ignored letters on the topic from the Anti-Defamation League.

The ADL has also noted that the AFA Journal has reprinted articles critical of Israel from The Spotlight, a far-right, virulently anti-Semitic newspaper published by Willis Carto, a Holocaust "revisionist."

Wildmon claims nearly half a million members and hundreds of local chapters, but critics are skeptical of those figures. With his crusade to post "In God We Trust" posters in public schools, Wildmon may be trying to make the leap from monitor of naughty TV to major player in the Religious Right. Only time will tell how successful he will be.
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Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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