When I was a kid, I was a stamp collector. My dad, in contrast, saved old coins. He was not a collector; he didn’t file them away in special folders. He just tossed old silver coins into a cigar box.
My favorite coin of his was also the oldest one he had: a “half dime” from 1845. To me, it’s a remarkably simple and aesthetically pleasing design, featuring a seated figure of “Liberty” on the obverse, with the words “Half Dime” on the reverse.
Note what’s missing: the words “In God We Trust.” This motto was not added to coins until the national trauma of the U.S. Civil War reinforced religious revivals that had preceded that war. It made its first appearance in 1864. (Interestingly, in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the words “under God” were added only in 1954 during another crisis, the fear of communism stoked by McCarthyism during the Cold War.)
As a nation it seems we invoke God during crises, calling on Him for support and guidance and blessing.
But I want to return to my dad’s half dime from 1845, because that coin, in its simplicity, enshrines a value that is most fundamental to our country: Liberty.
With respect to religion, liberty to me means the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, to include the freedom not to worship God, even the freedom to express disbelief in God.
Such liberty was extremely rare in the 18th century when our nation was founded. Back then, being labeled an “atheist” was roughly equivalent to being labeled a “terrorist” today. But our nation’s founders were of diverse religious persuasions, to include Catholics and Quakers as well as myriad branches of “dissenting” Protestantism. A few were deists (Thomas Jefferson most famously) who rejected the Trinitarian Christianity of most of their peers, and a small number (Thomas Paine, perhaps) were skeptics to the point of atheism.
What united them was a belief in liberty. In religion, this was expressed as the freedom to worship in any way you chose, or not to worship at all. Thus there was no religious “test” for office, no requirement to be a Christian or to express a belief that “In God We Trust.”
That profound belief in personal freedom — in liberty first — is captured on my dad’s old coin. It’s also captured in the Pledge of Allegiance before 1954: “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
In today’s political climate, with all of our public prayers and calls to God to bless America, with talk of Muslims not being allowed to hold office because their god is somehow the wrong god, we need to recall that America was founded on Liberty first.
Or as my mom put it in her inimitable way, “You worry about your soul and I’ll worry about mine.” Jefferson and Paine would have liked my mom.