In Walt Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the python Kaa attempts to hypnotize Mowgli, thereby turning the boy into a meal fit for a snake. As he brings the boy into a deep trance, he sings “Trust in Me” in order to (at least try to) facilitate in Mowgli’s destruction.
I think of that song every time there’s a news report regarding the national motto of the United States, “In God We Trust.” In recent years, we have seen the 2011 congressional reaffirmation of the motto, the 2014 bill in the Pennsylvania assembly that would mandate its placement in every school and classroom in the commonwealth, and various town councils wishing to display the motto in their meeting halls. (Nikki Moungo of Ballwin, Missouri, recently convinced the town not to post such a sign.)
The bigger question at hand, though, is the meaning of the phrase itself. Let’s start with the obvious question: why the word order? We could also say, “We trust in God” to achieve the same net result. The answer is simple enough: poetry. The phrase appears in the fourth verse of the poem, The Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key. Since the poem uses the phrase that way (even calling it a motto), that’s how we’ve known it ever since.
Side note: President James Madison, after he retired, lamented declaring a national day of prayer during the height of the War of 1812 on constitutional grounds. That makes it exceptionally ironic that this phrase as our motto can date to the same war.
There’s an interesting difference between saying “trust me” (or “trust someone”) and saying “trust in me” (or someone). If you say you trust me (or don’t trust me), you’re making a subjective statement, basically covering how honest a person you think I am. If you trust in someone, it’s more objective: you both think and expect that they will do the right thing; when the time comes that he or she might have to make an important decision, that they’ll make the choice that benefits you.
When you trust someone, you expect either honesty or an explanation for violating your trust. When you trust in someone, the betrayal is more palpable when they don’t live up to your expectations.
It doesn’t matter whether or not the god of the bible exists (but that is the god in which we trust according to the motto adopted in 1956). But this attitude can be quite dangerous and counterproductive when it comes to effecting real changes to secular policy. Recently Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), for example, blocked passage of reforms intended to curtail the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change because he doesn’t feel that God would allow such dramatic changes in climate to happen in the first place. Who knows how often improvements at a local, state, or federal level get impeded because someone in power feels that it goes against god’s plan?
Can we truly trust in God? Maybe, but we need to be mindful of the snake with the hypnotic eyes who really just wants to lead us to his dinner plate.