The US quarter-dollar coin embodies the bipolar nature of Western Christianity. On one side is an eagle, ancient symbol of imperial Roman power. On the other is the phrase “In God we trust.”
Herod the Great had a Roman eagle carved into the stone over the main entrance to the Jewish Temple. The insult was so great that Zealots staged a commando raid to remove the eagle. For their guerrilla iconoclasm, the Zealots were crucified. Jesus himself was crucified for Rome’s sake, so that he wouldn’t cause trouble with the Roman occupiers. Early Christians suffered repeated persecution, starting in Rome under Emperor Nero, the “Beast” whose number is 666. Later books of the New Testament refer to Rome as Babylon or the Whore of Babylon. Rome and God would seem to be mortal enemies.
On the other side of the quarter, however, it says “In God we trust.” Rome killed Jesus, but within 300 years Christianity had occupied Rome. Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, unified church and state. Rome adopted nearly universal Christian practice, and the Western Church adopted Rome’s inclination to legislate, to rule, and to build. Jesus, the Son of God, was married off to the emperor, also known as the Son of God. This unlikely pairing led naturally to travesties, such as popes leading armies and Christians executing neighbors for their neighbors’ beliefs. Jesus, the story ran, officially backed the empire, whichever empire was on top.
Early on, the US avoided this paradox by establishing a nation not founded on Christianity. Our symbol was the eagle, with no Christian counterpoint. In the 19th century, however, religion spread throughout the States, at the same time that in Europe it was being replaced by science and history. During a rise in Christian sentiment during World War II, the phrase “In God we trust” was first added to US coins. In 1956, when the US had finally achieved imperial power, that phrase became our national motto. The move meant to shore up our nation in the global battle with godless communism. “In God we trust” replaced the traditional, pluralist motto, “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one).
Church and state have been more or less intermingled since Constantine, and old habits are hard to break.