Our national motto is "In God We Trust," proving we are a Christian Nation.
Opponents to church/state separation cite the national motto, "In God We Trust," as evidence that there is not and should not be a strict separation of church and state and that America is supposed to be a Christian Nation. These accommodationists fail to explain why the national motto itself is constitutional or why Americans or the American government should be trusting any particular gods. Even worse, they often use the national motto as a reason for further breaches in separation.
E Pluribus Unum
The original National Motto was E Pluribus Unum (a Latin phrase translated as "from many, one"), created by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in 1776. This is a wholly secular motto for the secular government they had helped establish and this phrase can still be found on the back of the one dollar bill. Even at the time, though, some were dissatisfied with the secular nature of both the government and the motto.
Resentment festered and found release in the late 19th century with the National Reform Movement, that era's version of the Christian Right. After the Civil War, the NRA encouraged the belief that the tragic war had been a punishment from God for the nation's lack of Christianity — in particular, the government's lack of Christianity.
As a solution, the NRA proposed amending the Constitution to make it and the government explicitly Christian. It would have had the government acknowledge "the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among nations," and declared "his will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government." This plan failed, but they managed to get many members placed in all levels of government.
U.S. Mint and the National Motto
James Pollock, picked by President Lincoln as the 10th director of the U.S. Mint in 1861, was one of those members of the NRA. Pollock wanted America to become a Christian theocracy and had Congress include in a law the phrase "...and the shape, mottoes, and devices of said coins shall be fixed by the director of the mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury;..." Previously, Congress decided what would appear on coins, but now Pollock could do almost anything he wished.
It was at this time that the phrase "In God We Trust" first began to appear on the nation's coins. Pollock got the idea to obtain the power to use this phrase from a Baptist minister, Mark R. Watkinson, who argued that it would "relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism." Thus this motto was specifically designed to promote particular religious beliefs to the detriment of other beliefs.
The appearance of this motto was fixed to the desires of the current Mint's Director and the Secretary of the Treasury, so fundamentalist activists convinced Congress to pass a new law in 1908 which required the phrase to appear on certain coin denominations. Despite signing the law, President Theodore Roosevelt objected to this political use of the phrase, writing to William Boldly on November 11, 1907:
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....It is a motto which it is indeed well to have inscribed on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and in building such as those at West Point and Annapolis -- in short, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon. But it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.
The next stage occurred in 1955, when Congress passed a law requiring the phrase "In God We Trust" to appear on all currency. The following year, 1956, saw the passage of the law which changed the national motto officially to "In God We Trust." Both laws were a response to the perceived threat of "godless communism." It was, in essence, an effort to promote a particular and politically charged religious vision both to the American people and to citizens of other nations.
That this motto is an attempt to enforce a particular idea of God in American society has been admitted by those who have not been careful with their words. Stephen Hartkop, once the executive director of the Christian Coalition of Ohio, said that "For them to try to remove these words [from the currency] is nothing other than an attempt to try to basically remove God from society, and I really don't think the people of this country want that."
Why the National Motto Matters
Even some advocates of strict church/state separation argue that the national motto shouldn't be challenged in court or publicly critiqued because it has no practical impact on anyone's life. It may, however, make separationists look bad because they will be seen as attacking something in which Americans have invested a lot of emotional value. This position is wrong, though — the separationists should argue for changing the national motto precisely because it's used by anti-separationists for practical effect.
The use of a such a patently religious phrase for a national motto is regularly touted by fundamentalists as an excuse to have the government promote their religious beliefs — completely ignoring the irony of such a religious phrase appearing on money. In 1999, for example, an Indiana school wanted to post "eleven precepts," little more than a rewriting of the Ten Commandments which included the command "Trust in God."
Supporters argued that this was a secular precept because the phrase "In God We Trust" appears on currency. For some reason, it escaped their notice that commanding people's children to trust in a god is not the job of the state. Not only is this a misuse of government power, but it is an insult to religion to try and claim that trusting in their God is a secular rather than a religious issue.