It would seem that people are often challenged to understand events much beyond their own personal experience or lifespan. Events that occurred prior to one’s own birth are often relegated to that nebulous dumping ground of ideas called history while that which we personally experience or observe is considered absolute. Such a perspective myopia is not without consequences. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I was recently reminded of this when a caller to a radio show argued that it was obvious God has always been a part of the United States government and cited the motto on US currency, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” After all, if the founding fathers saw fit to include “IN GOD WE TRUST” on money, then surely the caller was right. If only it were true.
In reality, the religious phrase didn’t appear on US coins until 1908 more than 130 years after the Declaration of Independence. The motto didn’t appear on paper currency until 1957 when the 84th Congress yielded to the McCarthy inspired paranoia and passed a law changing the US motto from “E pluribus unum” (From many one) to “In God We Trust.”
If the founding fathers intended to convey any message with a motto on currency it seems that their message might have been that people should work together (E pluribus) for a singular (unum), common good and not simply state an allegiance to a deity.
The sweeping demagoguery of the McCarthy era was also the catalyst for injecting “God” into other previously secular traditions of which The Pledge of Allegiance is a prime example. The phrase, “One nation under God,” was not part of the original pledge as it was written in 1892 by socialist, Francis Bellamy. The Godification of the pledge occurred in 1954 but for many the assumption is that the phrase “has always been” part of the pledge.
A high tide for floating baselines
The Second Amendment is absolute
The phenomenon of perceiving the current status as the true representation for all time is sometimes referred to as a floating baseline. Godification of the government is only one example of a floating baseline. Another is the perception that the second amendment to the US Constitution is absolute when in fact that too is a relatively recent view.
Pollution isn’t a problem
In environmental discussions, a floating baseline is seen when one assumes the clean streams seen today have always existed in that state when in fact their cleanliness is attributable to regulations implemented many decades before. This can lead to problems when there is a call for environmental deregulation based on the premise that “the streams are already clean.”
Liberal is a pejorative
A floating baseline is also apparent in the transformation of the word “liberal” from a simple descriptive term to a pejorative often used in political discourse with the intention of instilling suspicion, distrust, and contempt.
The University of California, Santa Barbara has compiled over 100,000 documents as part of their American Presidency Project. A cursory review of the use of the world “liberal” indicates that prior to the Reagan presidency many Republican presidents embraced the word as descriptive and not as an inflammatory epithet. Several quotes by American presidents are listed at the end of this posting that demonstrate the historical use of the word liberal by prominent Republicans before it became a pejorative.
Although it is challenging, it is important to add context to our understanding of current events through the lens of history and recognize that what appears to be the norm today may not be what it was in the past or what it will be in the future. Only by understanding the relationship between past, present, and future can we minimize being prisoners of our own perspectives.
The following are from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
September 15, 1960
Let me give you a definition of the word “liberal.” And this is one you may not recall. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said – and incidentally, you know, I am sort of expert at this – Franklin D. Roosevelt once said – and listen to this. It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him. “A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.” Listen again. “A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.”
September 21, 1953
We are many things.
We are liberal for we do believe that, in judging his own daily welfare, each citizen, however humble, has greater wisdom than any government, however great.
We are progressive–for we are less impressed with the difficulties we observed yesterday than the opportunities we envision tomorrow.
And we are conservative–for we can conceive of no higher commission that history could have conferred upon us than that which we humbly bear–the preservation, in this time of tempest and of peril, of the spiritual values that alone give dignity and meaning to man’s pilgrimage on this earth.
April 5, 1954
But aside from this, my friends, we have also a Government that is ready to act whenever necessary. Now one of the important things in this kind of problem is the attitude of your Government. I have tried to define our Government several times as one that is completely liberal in its relationship to people, but earnestly tries to be conservative when it deals with your money and your economy.
August 23, 1954
Now this program at home can be defined best, I think, by saying this: that it has been a liberal program in all of those things that bring the Federal Government in contact with the individual, when it deals with the individual and his problems; in this field, the Government tries to be humane, considerate, and sympathetic–and that is true liberalism. But when it comes to the economy of this country, your pocketbook, and your taxes, it tries to be conservative.
So it is conservative in the economy, liberal in human affairs.
June 16, 1954
Now, as I see it, it is the kind of government that wants to leave in the hands of all citizens the maximum possible amount of their own money to spend, that wants to emphasize the local responsibility and authority in government, that nevertheless wants to do those things that the Federal Government should properly do to help citizens advantage themselves, to encourage them to take risks and to exercise their own initiative. That is the kind of government that I believe is truly liberal.
September 23, 1954
I think I can best say it this way: with everything, and in everything that affects your relationship to your Federal Government, that Government means to be liberal, human, sympathetic–always.
June 11, 1955
In this country we emphasize both liberal and practical education. But too often it is a liberal education for one and a practical education for another. What we desperately need is an integrated liberal, practical education for the same person–for every American youth who can possibly obtain its blessings. Hand and head and heart were made to work together. They must work together. They should be educated together.
August 20, 1956
Our great President Dwight D. Eisenhower has counseled us further: “In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with people’s money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative.”
 “Humans are a minor perturbation in the life of the earth.” https://sbarefoot.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/humans-are-a-minor-perturbation-in-the-life-of-the-earth
 “The Life of Reason; or the Phases of Human Progress,” by George Santayana. Originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1905. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15000/15000-h/vol1.html
 History of ‘In God We Trust’ – US Treasury. http://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx
 Joint Resolution of July 30, 1956, Public Law 84-851, 70 STAT 732, which established the national motto of the United States to be “In God We Trust”., 07/30/1956 http://research.archives.gov/description/299867
 “Do you know the Pledge of Allegiance? Are you sure?” https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2010/07/30/pledge/
 “The Five Extra Words That Can Fix the Second Amendment” http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-five-extra-words-that-can-fix-the-second-amendment/2014/04/11/f8a19578-b8fa-11e3-96ae-f2c36d2b1245_story.html
 “The Triumph and Collapse of Liberalism” http://www3.nd.edu/~amcadams/CP142_2004/Triumphliberalism.htm