Coin of the Realm

I have always ridiculed the urgency of Secular Humanists and atheists to scrape the motto “In God We Trust” off the coins. It seems to me a non-issue, straining at a gnat. Personally, I couldn’t care less what they put on the coins. Make the motto “What, Me Worry?” for all I care. It matters more difference to me what they put in the coins. What are quarters made of these days, zinc? Tin nickels? Hell, put Paul Newman’s face on ‘em. Just send more of ‘em my way.

For atheists to try, like the Maoist Gang of Four, to initiate a Cultural Revolution, eradicating every vestige of religion from public display, only makes them seem like a major irritant. It is mighty bad public relations. But if the Supreme Court goes along with Michael Newdow and excises “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance (as I hope they will), the next target of the Red Guard will be the coinage. So, unless we want to sit this one out, I guess we need to come up with an opinion.

In precisely what manner does the circulation of theophoric coins put atheists behind the eight ball? Obviously, someone like Michael Newdow looks at the inscription “In God We Trust” and says, “Hey! U.S. Mint! Speak for yourself, okay? Include me out!” In my judgment, atheists ought to just eat this one. The issue is not the same as in the Pledge of Allegiance, a forced creed, or of the posting of the Ten Commandments, a government commandment to worship only Jehovah. It may seem as if I am splitting hairs, but I see the coin motto not as a creed that the user of the money ipso facto espouses but rather as a confession of faith on the part of the majority, which does not necessarily claim to speak for the minority. It is a valid generalization, as when we say “Americans are proud of the free enterprise system.” Well, not all of them are, and everybody knows that. But so many of them are proud of it that such a generalization is neither inaccurate nor unfair.

There is a real difference. For instance, Baptists are stubbornly non-creedal. They agree with everything in the Nicene Creed, for example, but they will not ritually repeat it. They began as a “nonconformist,” dissenter movement in England, opting out of the state church. And they don’t want to impose a new party line in place of an old one. But they sure don’t mind testifying to their faith. They have the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, for instance. A confession, then, is supposed to be descriptive, not prescriptive, and that is a major difference. The coin motto is a confession offered, not a creed imposed (as the Pledge and the posted Ten Commandments would be).

If one day theism were to fade from America, it would be altogether proper to replace the motto, since then it would no longer express the sentiment of the majority.

I must confess to being one of Altizer’s “Christian Atheists.” Lloyd Geering and Don Cupitt express my viewpoint pretty well. I’m just telling you this so you won’t be so surprised when I look to the Bible for guidance on the issue. I can’t help thinking of two New Testament passages which seem to frame the issue faced by atheists with coins that seem to them uncomfortably close to communion wafers.

The first is Revelation 13:16-17, which tells how the False Prophet “causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or on the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the Beast or the numerical equivalent of its name.” For atheists, the name of the Beast of “God,” and his mark is “In God We Trust.” They find themselves forced to take the mark, i.e., to use the coins with this motto, if they want to participate in the economy. And, just as those who yield and accept the mark of the Beast in Revelation are considered apostates shaking hands with Satan, damning their souls, American atheists shudder at the compromise they feel a Christian society is forcing them to make. As Oscar Madison once said, “I feel for the kids! I really do!” But the other passage allows a conceptual escape route.

In Mark 12:13-17, a joint task force of Pharisees and Herodians approaches Jesus with the same sort of question recently aimed at Judge Roberts by the likes of Senators Leahy, Kennedy, and Biden, “Does the Torah allow us to pay Roman taxes, or not?” Jesus replies that his critics have obscured a crucial distinction: “Senator Biden, show me a denarius… Whose picture does it bear? Whose name is inscribed on it?” They answer, “Caesar’s,” wondering just where this line of questioning is headed. Jesus: “Then turn over to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” I believe Jesus is appealing to the fact that pilgrims to the temple could not use Roman coins to buy pre-inspected sacrificial animals on-site, which is why there were money exchange tables. They had to change the Roman coins, bearing “idolatrous” images, for Jewish and Phoenician coins, which could be used for temple commerce. Jesus’ reasoning, as I see it, is that, since one cannot offer “pagan” coins to God (in the temple), then handing them back to Caesar, who minted them, entails no religious compromise.

And, I suggest, atheists need fear no compromise of conscience for exactly the same reason: they did not mint the coins with “In God We Trust” printed on them. By using them in public commerce they are merely putting them back into the system from which they emerged. They need feel no more compromise of principle than they would spending francs while visiting France.

So is it worth it, crusading to scour God off the coins? I hardly think so. I intend to keep right on ridiculing it as a neurotic waste of time. Let’s stick to real issues, like stopping the armies of darkness from teaching Creationism in public schools. The coin crusade only tends to taint the larger issue with its own patina of fanaticism.

So says Zarathustra
Robert M. Price
November 2005


Copyrightę2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design