If the U.S. is a Christian country, 'so is hell'

Justin Kaplan

September 11, 1992|By Justin Kaplan

SOME background on the motto "In God We Trust" may be useful in judging the current debate over the role of the deity in American party politics.

Now imprinted on all our coins and bills and supplanting "E Pluribus Unum" as the official national motto, "In God We Trust" first appeared on a bronze two-cent piece near the end of the Civil War. It was authorized, in response to public sentiment, by Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln's secretary of the Treasury.

"It is simple, direct, gracefully phrased," Mark Twain commented on this motto in 1906. "It always sounds well -- In God We Trust. I don't believe it would sound any better if it were true."

The fact was, he went on, "If this nation has ever trusted in God, that time has gone by; for nearly half a century its entire trust has been in the Republican Party and the dollar -- mainly the dollar."

Twain would have relished the ongoing tussle for the nation's political soul. The religious right appropriates the deity as a registered Republican, privileged to share the wisdom of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and Ronald Reagan.

President Bush accused the Democrats of ignoring God altogether, while his vice president appears to be standing at Armageddon, battling for the Lord against the single-parent Children of Darkness.

On the other hand, squads of prominent clergymen denounce as blasphemy, presumption, spiritual vulgarity and voodoo theology the suggestion that a new Republican administration will be the temporal equivalent of the Kingdom of God and woe to those who fail to make the final cut on family and religious values.

What prompted Twain's reflections on "In God We Trust" was one of President Theodore Roosevelt's characteristically convulsive (and ultimately reversible) announcements. Roosevelt said he planned to remove the words from currency because coins and bills inscribed with them often went into unholy places like gin mills, horse parlors, bordellos and Democratic Party war chests.

A delegation of outraged clergymen, according to Twain, immediately "put up a prodigious assertion unbacked by any quoted statistics and passed it unanimously in the form of a resolution: the assertion, to wit, that this is a Christian country."

Therefore, the motto stood, just as it did in the days of King David the Psalmist.

One can imagine how this went over with Twain, who believed that in status and influence the clergy as a group yielded about as much usable light as the moon.

He also scoffed at the orthodox notion of heaven because in place of sexual intercourse it featured psalm-singing and harp-plucking, neither of which any normal person could abide in unbroken doses.

If the United States is, indeed, "a Christian country," Mark Twain reasoned, then, "so is hell."

"Those clergymen," Twain continued, "know that, inasmuch as 'Strait is the way and narrow is the gate and few -- few -- are they that enter in thereat' has had the natural effect of making hell the only really prominent Christian community in any of the worlds; ,, but we don't brag of this and certainly it is not proper to brag and boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that certainly five-sixths of our population could not enter in at the narrow gate."

For at least five-sixths of the electorate whose salvation will be in the balance in November, this should be a chastening thought.

Justin Kaplan is general editor of the forthcoming 16th edition of "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations." He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for "Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain."

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