Commonwealth Policy Center

Does the National Motto belong in public school? State Rep. Brandon Reed (R-Hodgenville) thinks so. He's introducing a bill that would require every Kentucky public elementary and secondary school to display the motto "In God We Trust" in a prominent location.

Reed's rationale is simple.  He points to a broken culture of increasing illicit drug use, school violence and teen suicide—all warning signs that we've lost our moral bearings and something should be done. "We need God in our schools now more than ever,” Reed said in a statement.

The proposal, which has been pre-filed for introduction in the 2019 General Assembly session raises concerns. Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Joe Gerth insists that posting the national motto in schools is an imposition. "There's a significant number of Kentuckians who don't believe in God or believe in a different god who don't want public schools pushing religion on their children," Gerth said in a recent column. But his alternative would be an imposition of another kind: enforced secularism.

Kate Miller of Kentucky ACLU charged that no politician should "enshrine his personal religious beliefs into law." She's right. But posting the National Motto in a public place is hardly imposing a personal religious belief.

"In God We Trust" became the national motto in 1956 as the Cold War dominated our attention. It was partly our collective response to "godless communism" as the Iron Curtain was closing over Eastern Europe. The Soviets just invaded Hungary. Two years prior, the words "under God" were included in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Cold War is long past, but another battle of ideas rages within our post-truth society desperately seeking a moral reference point. And the battleground again is our public schools where posting the national motto appears the right direction for many. Arkansas and Tennessee recently enacted similar national motto laws. Florida and North Carolina appear to be following suit.

Yet caution is in order. Believers enjoy immense religious freedom—the ability to live and work according to their conscience and minister and influence according to their faith. Such freedom should be carefully stewarded.

The faithful should strive to be reconcilers and healers in a broken and hurting world and avoid driving wedges that further divide. They should also be wary of politicians who might unscrupulously use God as a battering ram to score political points. (I don't think Reed is doing this).

Opposition to Reed's proposal likely stems from suspicion this is a precursor to wedding state and church. That's what the Founding Fathers shielded us from. Yet their theory of natural rights was incomplete without the Creator as author of those rights. Nor could there be fixed moral standards apart from the Creator.  The Founders' genius recognized God as part of our political mosaic without establishing a national religion or compelling belief on anyone. This understanding is unfortunately being shredded.

The national motto was reaffirmed by near unanimity in Congress in 2011. But this is 2018, and the question is whether it belongs in prominent places in Kentucky schools.  Reed said there's "no reason for us to be ashamed of our national motto; it is a vital part of our culture.” 

Recognizing the Creator as part of our political compact at the state and federal level is historical.  That's a big idea. So it makes sense that it's something that all students should understand. Even on a daily basis.