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The Motto America Needs Right Now

We have trust issues in this country, but not the ones which will be debated Tuesday in Congress. Today, House Republicans are hoping to pass a resolution which would reaffirm the words “In God We Trust”, as our national motto.

Talk about bad timing.

Now, why would I say that? It’s not that I have any problems with that motto. I am a rabbi, for God’s sake – literally.

And it’s not simply personal, either. While it has been understood in a variety of ways over the centuries, faith has been a crucial component of how the vast majority of Americans have understood who they are, not only as individuals, but as Americans. So the notion that “we” as Americans would use this motto, even if not all Americans do trust in God, is not only fair, it is appropriate and good.

But the fact that “In God We Trust” is a beautiful motto does not mean that now is the best time to spend our energies reaffirming it, especially if doing so will likely cause an unnecessary backlash against its use itself.

This is precisely the kind of legislation which fuels resistance, by many people, to the motto being used in the first place. They will, because the issue is now publicly “in play”, fight extra hard against it precisely because this initiative will feel like its being forced down their throats. The fact that the proposed legislation does nothing of the sort will not matter.

But the real shame in raising this issue now, is that here in the United States we already had a national motto, at least informally, before President Eisenhower signed “In God We Trust” into law in 1956. With their action today, this new initiative pushes that old motto further out of the public eye at precisely a moment when we need it most. The old motto? “E Pluribus Unum” (“from many, one”).

Established by an act of Congress in 1782, the animating premise of those words has never been more important. The notion that we, as a nation, with all of the paths which brought us to these shores, and with all the different, and even conflicting, views we espouse, remain unified, is a lesson for us all.

We seem to be increasingly divided into two camps in this country. One camp is so frightened of diversity that in their panic over loss of unity, they confuse unity with uniformity. Think of them as masters of the “Unum”, who would rather ignore the “Pluribus”.
On the other side, is the camp which is so intoxicated with the beauty of an increasingly diverse polity, that they diminish the importance of being able to articulate clearly and proudly what it is that makes us a “Unum”. These are the folks who scream about “cultural oppression” when anyone dares to speak of virtually anything as being normative.

Despite the fact that most Americans describe themselves as falling into either of these camps, it is the views emanating from these camps, and those who espouse them on Capitol Hill, which continue to paralyze our paralyze our politics and undermine our sense that we can accomplish anything truly grand as a nation.
So while Republicans will introduce the legislation supporting the use of “In God We Trust”, and Democrats will rail against it, neither will do anything to address the real question we have in this country – do we trust each other to come together and fix what’s broken? Do we trust in our capacity as a nation to give out children a better country than the one which we inherited? Those are the real trust issues we need to address in this nation, and it’s high time to we start doing so.
Ultimately, “In God We Trust” is a mere motto, one whose claim I support, but nonetheless, it is simply a motto. “E Pluribus Unum” is both a motto and an aspiration. One might even call it a prayer. But whatever one calls it, it calls to us to rise to a great challenge and we should demand that both we and our elected officials rise to it now.

Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and the president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.