Washington Post reported some first responders in Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and other places have put bumper stickers with the motto “In God We Trust” on their official vehicles.
There is a devious brilliance to it.
After all, who could possibly object? “In God We Trust” is, of course, our official national motto—its place on our currency is even older, going back as far as the Lincoln administration.
At this very moment, it’s as close to you as the nickel in your pocket.
Yet the fact is, many would object.
Indeed, the religious arguments about whether the motto belongs on our money or, now, on our police cars, may be even more robust than the secular ones.
Ever since the early days of the Reformation, there have been Christians who have argued passionately about the proper relationship between the sacred and the secular.
Ironically, some of the earliest Reformers saw a clear separation between the two as a matter of vital importance, but not as a way to protect the secular world of the state from the encroachments of faith (as we might today).
Instead, they saw clear boundaries between sacred and secular as a way to preserve the independence and purity of the Church as Christians attempted to follow the Gospel.
For that kind of Christian and for those who follow in their theological footsteps, the potential of worldly power to corrupt and dilute the teachings of Jesus is just too dangerous. In fact, part of the work of the Christian community specifically involves calling out social sin and injustice wherever those might lurk, especially among the powers of this world.
Standing up for the truth, maybe even to the point of sacrifice, is what taking up the cross and following Jesus, or naming and resisting the principalities and powers, were understood to mean.
With that in mind, the sight of a police car emblazoned with the words “In God We Trust” does not comfort me. It sounds shivers down my spine.
But as a white, suburban pastor, I have to acknowledge that my spine isn’t the one they have in mind.
Surely it’s no accident that the bumper stickers are popping up at a time when dashboard cameras and cell phones are documenting the chronic injustice and lethal potential of first responder unprofessionalism as never before.
In a cultural moment when police are newly aware of not being trusted, somehow it seems important to them to affirm their trust in God.
The Post quoted Frank McKeithen, a sheriff in Bay County, Florida, who said:
“It’s just right now it seems like in our country law enforcement has been painted with a brush that we’re bad guys. So I was trying to think of something that might set a fire to our guys. We want to be proud and we want people to be proud of us, and we know we’re better than how people portray us.”
It’s not entirely clear how any bumper sticker accomplishes that, much less this one.
Unless, of course, its point is to remind everyone who sees it where the real power sits: same as it ever was, behind the wheel of the squad car, in the embodied authority of the officer and vast system of legal, social, and cultural privilege that stands behind him at any moment of encounter.
At any moment, that privilege is never far—it’s as close as the nickel in your pocket, the privilege “we” trust in, the God “we” have decided to serve.
It’s a “we” designed to remind some that they are still a “you” in their own communities, and still not part of “us.”
It’s a “we” that seems to nod to Christians, most of all. But really only to some Christians—only the Christians who are prepared to acknowledge no systems, no dangers inherent in power, no histories that shape our vision, no sin that looms larger than our own peccadilloes.
If that’s the God we trust in, God help us all.
The history of our faith offers us a different way to understand the call of the Christian in this moment, as a new summons to our perennial vocation of standing up for the truth and against injustice, even to the point of sacrifice.
Maybe feeling shivers down my spine is one way the Spirit reminds me that it’s time to grow a backbone.
The Christians who do just that will be the ones to model a faith all people can trust.
Maxwell Grant is Senior Minister of Second Congregational Church, UCC in Greenwich, CT. He has served as a school chaplain in Manhattan, and a hospital chaplain in New Haven, CT. His writing has also appeared in Religion Dispatches and Bearings—the BTS blog. You can also find him at his web home: www.maxgrant.net. Twitter: @maxgrantmg