“No graven images may be worshiped, except the currency.” – Arthur Hugh Clough
We want it. We need it. And Donna Summer insists “She” works hard for it. So what on Earth is so special about “The Money?” Well, it seems as though searching Earth for the answer just isn’t enough for Americans. Instead, we have decided to look to the spiritual realm to imbue our tender with magical properties. Properties that elevate money to a place of power, sanction, and a forum for the assertion of an irrelevant and unrelated theological belief of the few in an attempt at public validation for their personal faith agenda. In God We Trust is branded across our currency and is the continual focus of federal legislators who apparently have nothing better to do than sit around in self-congratulatory meetings as they pat each other on the back saying, “Hey, remember when we put God on our money and buildings even though church and state were supposed to be separate? That was awesome. We should like pass a bill or something telling everyone that we really meant what we said so that if they disagree we can call them un-American. That would be cool.” (Feel free to read the previous the way Beavis and Butthead would say it.) My question is, “What does this motto do to our discussion of money and how does it shape the way we are allowed to speak/believe as Americans?”
This assertion, that we all must trust in the Christian god, is not anything more than an opinion. It is fair for anyone who believes or wishes to believe to voice this opinion. However, this late addition which usurps the place held by our traditional E pluribis unum, is in direct contradiction to the constitutional protection against state religion. This statement of trusting god is not a unifying motto but an attempt to impose a common obedience to a religiously held belief in a supernatural deity of a specific monotheistic origin. No, we do not all trust in god. Nor do we all trust in Krishna, Allah, the flying spaghetti monster, or any deity at all. This statement does not unify the diverse citizens of the U.S. any more than saying in ghosts we trust, in veganism we trust, or in monogamy we trust. The argument one might propose in defense, that the god in question is a general god that covers the previously mentioned grounds, is immediately nullified by the less than witty banter of politicians who are self-proclaimed Christians at a rate of nearly 100 percent.
The original motto, E pluribis unum, translates roughly to the phrase “out of many, one.” This is by far a fairer and more accurate motto not just of what America is at the moment, but of what it must always strive to be in future moments. In God We Trust divides our nation and severely impedes the effort of creating a rational, inclusive public discourse.
In a country where capitalism is the only heretical idol allowed to be worshiped by the church, money holds a mystical property as the emblazoned motto seeks to assure us of the currency’s transubstantive properties. Margaret Atwood states in her work Payback, “[T]here’s a distinct advantage to having ‘God’ written on your government’s money: it appears to give the currency a divine imprimatur (140).” In essence, money is just another part of the divinely ordained reign of the American Judeo-Christian capitalist, gaining its authority from the almighty as it transubstantiates into the almighty himself; the almighty dollar. When you put it into perspective, this creates a public sphere tainted by a worldview that derives its power through insisting upon itself. This worldview relies upon a self-contained ontology that orders the universe according to its own mandates; the belief validates itself simply through its assertion.
The American discourse is, therefore, unhealthy due to its lack of even ground argumentative space. Rather than contribute to the voices of the dialogue, In God We Trust seeks to dominate and destroy all other mottoes. When one proposes a worldview or belief to be discussed, shared, evaluated, one also accepts that it is in flux and must be defended to be forged again and again. But seeking to replace the motto E pluribis unum, an inclusive and intentional move to foster solidarity, is a move to abscond from the common arena of public dialogue and debate in hopes of reordering the landscape to an obedient, penitent, and controllable population. Where the original motto was derived from a desire to encapsulate the heart and essence of the existing national ideal, the new regime is born out of a reality that does not, as of yet, exist in actuality. The new proposed hegemony seeks to hold an alternate vision as the truth and force the public to conform by insisting that it has already done so. This is a classic tool of conversion used throughout the centuries, specifically by the Roman Catholic Church, to create a smoother transition from paganism to Christianity when taking over a population. The story goes something like this: Your main god or gods or heroes are actually misinterpretations of the true God (even though they predate ours by thousands of years) so we will introduce our faith as a layer right on top of your culture like a glacier inevitably crushing or absorbing slowly all that stands in its path. Christmas (solstice festivals, worship of the light), Easter (fertility festivals), Mary (goddess Isis) worship, and many more are examples of this trend. It is not hard to see the trickle down of this mode of thought in American culture. How many of our “traditional” foods are merely Americanized bastardizations of cuisine from around the world (chimichanga, chop suey, pizza…)?
The point is, those who would impose and insist upon continual reassertion of In God We Trust are doing so as a means to the end of reshaping our national identity to fit a minority view that uses the age-old tradition of assimilation over obliteration. In seeking not to destroy but to absorb, this methodology does just that; it wreaks destruction. How foolish are we to be persuaded by such arguments? Should one come to believe in something simply because they are told they have already believed? This logic does not hold under scrutiny and is precisely why scrutiny is avoided through the use of continual distraction. The method is simple. If you can no longer control the flow of information then dominate its content. Flood the stream of public consciousness with an abundance of In God We Trust rhetoric and the tides will turn. Even those who don’t believe will see their automated actions fall in line with the systemic beat of rhetorical crusade marches. And that’s the trick. Win by gradually converting the system to a particular mode of thought so that even your enemies must play by the rules of your game.
It’s no wonder that money causes us so much trouble. We’ve been led to believe that an almighty god put it there for us to use and that to misuse it would be sinful. It’s from god and thus should be revered for its divinity. It bears the name of god and therefore transubstantiates; it is god. The circle rolls in perpetuity when left to its own devices. We insist that god shapes our economies of resource, thought, wealth, discourse, ethics and therefore they are divine and must be reasserted as such. This assertion proves that god shapes those economies which in turn proves that the assertion is right to be made and so on and so forth. The dog chases his tail over and over again. And any talk that would seek to distract that dog from its frivolous pursuit is met violently by the owners who convinced him to chase it in the first place. Such a distraction might lead to clarity of the situation at hand and we just can’t have that can we?
Money isn’t special. It isn’t magical or mystical. Money is an arbitrary construct designed to be the tool that allows a system of barter to transcend like for like valuations and situational value inflations by creating a basic unit for trade. We make it exist, not god. In order to place money in its proper standing, we must break with the bizarre idolatry of the In God We Trust cult. Only when we can admit that currency is an earthly construction can we remove those walls that impede our ability to deal with its use proportionally. Once this separation takes place, we can then more easily conquer the task of bringing the In God We Trust hegemony back to its proper place among the voices of the public sphere where it can be judged by a jury of its peers like a good American. Until we can make this a reality, we are doomed to relive the same day twice. We must take responsibility for the idol we allowed to be fashioned like Aaron’s calf from the gold in our reserves. If we refuse, we are sadly called upon by a false god to “bow down before the one you serve (Reznor 1989).” And as the rest of the lyric goes, if we continue to serve this god, we will get exactly what we deserve.