- - Monday, April 21, 2014

On April 22, 1864 — 150 years ago — Congress authorized that all newly minted coins be inscribed with “In God We Trust.”

It took the tragedy of the Civil War to induce Congress to act, even though ministers throughout the country had urged for years that American coins bear reference to the Almighty. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on Nov. 13, 1861, a Pennsylvania minister made a persuasive argument, contending that the inscription “God, Liberty, Law” would appropriately prioritize the nation’s hallmarks.

Congress appeared to take its inspiration from “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a widely popular song that emerged again from its origins during the War of 1812. Although not adopted as the national anthem until 1931, its stanzas were riveting, especially the fourth stanza with the lyrics slightly modified by Congress: “And this be our motto: In God Is Our Trust.”

In spite of the congressional legislation, the subsequent history of the coinage inscription was not uniform, with reference to the Almighty disappearing on the five-cent coin in 1883 and not reappearing until the Jefferson nickel in 1938. Then, too, there was opposition to the federal government’s action on the basis of its alleged violation of the separation of church and state.

Although these legal assaults never found receptive courts, some popular Americans, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, denounced the putting of any reference to God on money.

Not until the 1950s was the movement toward extending “In God We Trust” to paper currency successful. That happened in 1956 with congressional legislation that not only authorized the gradual implementation of the text on paper bills, but also made it the national motto.

It was a decade replete with religious efforts and themes, including Congress adding in 1954 “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Among the most popular songs of the decade were Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Vaya Con Dios” and Frankie Laine’s “I Believe.” The Rev. Billy Graham, whose evangelistic association was incorporated in 1950, made religion readily accessible to average Americans. Mr. Graham wrote books, a newspaper column that attracted 28 million readers every day, appeared on television and radio, and, most of all, hosted crusades throughout the nation and world.

In 1957, Martin Luther King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a means of using nonviolent means to end segregation.

Even Hollywood underscored the religious upswing, in high-budget extravaganzas consisting of thousands of actors, animals and sets, as illustrated by “Quo Vadis” (1951), “The Robe” (1953) — the first time CinemaScope photography was used — and “The Ten Commandments” (1956). No movie was more uplifting than “A Man Named Peter” (1955), the life of Peter Marshall (1902-1949), pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in the nation’s capital and later Senate chaplain.

Church membership mushroomed more than in any other decade in the century, even among youth, as illustrated by the founding of the Campus Crusade for Christ in 1951. The Census Bureau in 1957 noted that a whopping 96 percent of Americans noted a specific denomination when asked, “What is your religion?”

Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 became the first and only president to begin his inaugural speech with what he called “a little private prayer of my own”:

“Almighty God, as we stand here at this moment, my future associates in the executive branch of government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere.

“Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people, regardless of station, race or calling.

“May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory. Amen.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.