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Why Did Congress Reaffirm Our Bland, Meaningless National Motto?

Congress supported 'In God We Trust' remaining the United States' national motto yesterday. But maybe it's time for something a little more unique?

Any time you pay for something in cash, you hand over an important part of the American identity. Yes, it’s a bit of our ever-decreasing GDP, which could be considered a scarce resource, but there’s something else about that little slip of paper you pass to a cashier. Take a look at your dollar bills, and remind yourself of the United State’s national motto: “In God We Trust.”


If you didn't know we had an official national motto, or you mistakenly thought it was the Latin "E pluribus unum" (out of many, one) don’t worry, you’re in great company. Last year, President Barack Obama said the Latin phrase was the national motto during a speech in Jakarta. Sure, "In God We Trust" is on the walls of the House chamber, our paper currency, and coins, but if the even the president doesn't know it, maybe it’s time for a change.

In an effort to clear up any confusion, Congress officially reaffirmed "In God We Trust" as the national motto Tuesday evening on a 396-9 vote. The nine dissenters included one Republican, freshman Representative Justin Amash (R-Michigan), who called it an unnecessary resolution designed to "score political points." He had a point: Congress took 35 minutes to approve continued support for something that has been the official motto since 1956 and was reaffirmed just nine years ago.

If the framing of the discussion had been different, yesterday’s discussion might have been more valid. But the fact is that nobody seems to care. “In God We Trust” has been on our currency, on our walls, and in our pledge of allegiance for many years, and despite occasional legal challenges over the religious undertones, it's not going anywhere. But if reaffirming the importance of a national motto is really such a pressing issue for Congress, the least they could do is come up with one that actually says something about what sets the United States apart.

Setting aside the church-state issue, "In God We Trust" could be the motto of any nation, anywhere. Denmark manages to embrace religion while tying the country into the slogan, with "God’s help, the love of the people, Denmark’s strength." Our motto could be a lot worse, something along the lines of Chile’s aggressive and slightly frightening, "By reason or by force." But something along the lines of the European Union’s motto, "United in Diversity," would capture something that makes the United States great. Andora also has a motto tailor-made for the U.S.: "Strength United is Stronger." Surely Congress could take inspiration from these and create something a bit more unique than the bland current version.

During yesterday's discussion, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) pointed out how much time was being wasted. "Nothing will change when we pass this resolution. It was our national motto yesterday. It’s our national motto today. It’ll be our national motto tomorrow." Let's hope that Congress either takes a cue from Nadler and stop wasting precious time on the House floor discussing established fact, or siezes the opportunity to create a motto people have a chance of remembering.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user janoma.cl