News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Atheist Group's Banners Spark A Very American Conversation

Metroplex Atheists

A local atheist group garnered attention recently from all over North Texas thanks to some bright yellow banners hanging in downtown Fort Worth that read “In NO God We Trust.”

For some, though, the banners have sparked a conversation that goes beyond the national motto, “In God We Trust.”  As it turns out, the country has been debating those words for hundreds of years.

Courtney Stewart, president of Metroplex Atheists, said the current motto was adopted to create a Christian identity for the nation.

“Which means that if you don’t identify as that, the motto excludes you, and it’s calling anyone outside that identification un-American,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s group wants to change the motto back to what some consider the de facto motto of the United States, E. Pluribus Unum. In Latin, it means "One of Many." You’ve probably seen it on the back of a quarter or heard politicians mention it in speeches, like Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.

The banners in Fort Worth are starting to draw national attention. The city has received complaints about the banners, and some were even vandalized. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price wrote on Twitter that she’s appalled by the banners, but the group followed the correct policies and procedures to display them.

Stewart said in the midst of the backlash, she’s had other secular groups from across the country reach out in support of her group’s cause.

“And I think that part of [the national attention] is the provocative nature of the posters, but that nature is what starts the conversation and widens the access of that conversation,” she said.

The debate over America’s national motto started before the Constitution was even drafted. Kate Carte, associate professor of history at SMU, said in the 1770s, “Under the Continental Congress, there are a whole series of efforts to create sort of national symbols.”

Before the Constitution was drafted, a committee was charged with creating a seal and motto for the new nation. Some religious ideas were talked about, but ultimately the committee decided against religious symbols and phrases. Carte said most Americans identified as Protestant at the time, but each state had different religious establishments already in place.

“And they were worried that religious divisions would divide them farther,” she said. “They were worried about staying together anyway, and religion was just a problem they didn’t want to address.”

So the founders avoided religion, choosing instead “E. Pluribus Unum” to appear on early coins and the national seal. Stewart said this motto describes America as a secular nation.

Credit Shutterstock
The national seal of the United States.

“Secular not meaning non-religious but meaning inclusion of all religious perspectives,” she said.

But Carte said “In God We Trust” was also seen as inclusive when it was adopted as America’s motto in 1956.

“The origins of the national motto, and also the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance right, they’re very much a part of that 1950s moment,” Carte said. “And what they reflect is a coming together of a couple different trends in history.”

One is that some politicians wanted to limit government, and they believed incorporating Christianity into politics would help their cause.

“At the same time, kind of on the other end of the political spectrum, you have coming out of World War II a series of interfaith movements where Protestants, Catholics and Jews are together creating this idea of a Judeo-Christian country,” she said.

Carte said the Holocaust and anti-communist sentiment during the '50s pushed these groups to find common ground. But she doesn’t think the phrase “In God We Trust” reflects any underlying truth about our nation or constitution. It’s just a statement about the times, she said.

Stewart of the Metroplex Atheists said the group’s initiative isn’t about bashing or removing religion.

“I think that would be a terrible world," Stewart said. "It’s so much simpler than that. It’s like, let’s coexist. Let’s not just tolerate each other but embrace each other."

No matter what side you fall on, Carte said the debate is far from over.

“We’ve been arguing about it since the beginning of the nation, that we have never had a clear sense that this was a Christian nation or even what being a Christian nation would mean,” Carte said. “We’ve also never had a clear sense that we were a secular nation or what being a secular nation would be.”

The one thing all Americans do agree on, is that we love to argue about what it means to be an American.

Rebekah Morr is KERA's All Things Considered newscaster and producer. She came to KERA from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a news assistant at Weekend All Things Considered.