On July 30th of 1956, President Eisenhower made “In God We Trust” the national motto. By 1957, it was on all U.S. paper currency.
The phrase “In God We Trust” had been on all U.S. minted coins since 1938, and its history with American currency goes back to the Civil War. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase responded to requests from devout Christians and told the director of the Mint to make it so.
But the director of the Mint pointed out that it wasn’t legal to print any old thing on the currency; it took an act of Congress. Congress acted, and “In God We Trust” first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin.
Salmon P. Chase, by the way, appears on the $10,000 bill.
The phrase didn’t appear on ALL coins, however, for quite some time. When it appeared was up to whomever was directing the Mint. Nickels, for example, didn’t carry the phrase from 1883 to 1938, when the Treasury introduced the Thomas Jefferson nickel — the modern standard.
Historically, the motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum (“One out of many”), adopted in 1782, and used on the Great Seal of the United States. But that was never made into law, and so it was made second-best when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed PL-84-140 into law in 1956. “In God We Trust” became the nation’s official motto. Both mottoes appear on U.S. currency these days. In 2011, Congress “reaffirmed” that our money loves a god (but doesn’t say which one)… but there’s been no official reaffirmation of “one out of many.”
Why did they make “In God We Trust” a law? The common thought is that some Americans were desperate to identify themselves as faithful to a god in the face of the Soviet Union and all their state-imposed godless communism. Two years earlier, in 1954, President Eisenhower had made it official to include “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. (The Pledge itself was unofficial until Americans, facing the Spanish-American war, were overcome with religious fervor and Congress codified the oath.)
The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting the inclusion of “In God We Trust” since before it was law, saying it violates the separation of church and state. Good luck with that one, you unprincipled, faithless, bound-for-a-lake-of-fire, non-theistic secularist eggheads!
To read a more detailed history of the legislation, try this undergraduate research paper, In God We Trust and the A.C.L.U.
To read a patriotic defense of the phrase, go here.
To read brief, often absurd arguments on both sides, try this forum at Debate.org.
For a handy list of who appears on what form of U.S. currency, see Who2’s Common Bonds: On the Money.