Jack Balkin has interesting comments on the “Under God” Supreme Court case.

I agree with the Ninth Circuit decision that putting “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause. Part of Balkin’s discussion touches on the actual meaning of “In God We Trust”, which is cited as an example of “ceremonial Deism” — a reference to God in a civil context which has essentially no religious meaning, partly because the usage is old enough and traditional enough that it is part of the background noise of the culture.

Balkin compares the phrase “In God We Trust” to the phrase “We Believe in God”, noting that the only difference is that “In God We Trust” has a history of civil ceremonial use, and “We Believe in God” doesn’t — even though the two phrases mean the same thing.

Previously, I’ve argued that the phrase “believe in God” has two different meanings — one being simply “believe in the existence of God” ( as in “believe in ghosts” ) and the other being a more dogmatic “believe that God is a good entity” ( as in “believe in Capitalism” ). Note that both phrasings would violate the Establishment Clause if used in a civil context like a Public School ceremony.

“In God We Trust” really means neither. Its actual meaning is much more nebulous than “We Believe in God” — what is it that we trust God to do? It certainly doesn’t actually imply that all of us trust God to do the same thing. This is why “In God We Trust” can fall under the heading of “ceremonial Deism”.

Now, some would say that using the phrase “In God We Trust” implies the statement “We believe that God exists”, and therefore should fall under the umbrella of the Establishment Clause. This is a fair argument, but personally I make the distinction between an implied statement and an explicit statement. A line must be drawn somewhere, and that’s where I would draw it.