In the mid-fifties, when the United States was locked in a cold war with the atheist Soviet Union, it seemed a good time to refortify the country’s relationship with the Almighty and affirm the national motto to be “In God We Trust”. The motto had been used at least since the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key had penned the Star Spangled Banner with its fourth stanza’s line “And this be our motto…: ‘In God is our Trust.'”
During the Civil War, when religious sentiment was strong and Unionists strove to establish the moral high ground over the secessionists, Congress passed legislation authorizing the placement of the motto on coinage. It was authorized to be on coins, but not mandated.
Teddy Roosevelt thought that it would be appropriate to inscribe the motto on national monuments, temples of justice, or legislative halls, where it would “tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon.” But he didn’t think it belonged on coins. When T.R. became President, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to design a $20 gold coin, a coin that is considered by many numismatists to be the most beautiful of all US coins. However, when it was first struck, it was noticeably lacking “In God We Trust “.
TR explained in a letter to the New York Times:
“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 no good, but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege. A beautiful and solemn sentence such as the one in question should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit.
“Any use which tends to cheapen it, and, above all, any use which tends to secure its being treated in a spirit of levity, is from every standpoint profoundly to be regretted.
“But it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by its use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen its use on postage stamps or on advertisements… In all my life I have never heard any human being speak reverently of this motto on the coins or show any sign of its having appealed to any high emotion in him, but I have literally, hundreds of times, heard it used as an occasion of and incitement to the sneering ridicule which it is, above all things, undesirable that so beautiful and exalted a phrase should excite.”
Despite TR’s letter, Congress quickly intervened to mandate that the motto be printed on all coins.