Theodore Roosevelt and the National Motto

If our past presidents went to high school with each other, Teddy Roosevelt would have been voted “Most Likely to Become a Mythical Hero.” Seriously, that guy is the Chuck Norris of the early 20th century.

Exhibit A in this case would be that picture of T.R. riding a moose. Okay, so it’s actually a fake–I trust you to Google it for yourself. Still, his image allows for that kind of exaggeration. I have infected at least one American History class with my mythical revision of the charge up San Juan Hill–let’s just say my version had more motorcycle exhaust than the real one would have had. I’m joking, obviously, but Roosevelt was one of those larger-than life figures. 

The downside of his public image is that some details of his presidency can get overlooked. He is well known for saying “speak softly and carry a big stick,” but why he insisted on being so quiet while brandishing a piece of wood is usually forgotten.

Here’s a fun fact: Theodore Roosevelt didn’t like the idea of putting the national motto, “In God We Trust,” on our money.

In a letter written in 1907 (which is archived here), he explained his reasoning. Again, I trust you to read this for yourself. 

The issue of the motto could easily be revisited today, and Roosevelt’s letter prompts some good questions (which I will pose without fully answering). 

Should “In God We Trust” be our motto in the first place? If the answer is yes, the question should be why. Many say that answer is because we are a Christian nation, which leads me to the next question. 

Is such a motto true of America? I would wager most of those in support of this motto would also say that America is actually not trusting God at all, if such a thing can even be said of a government. But even if we can presuppose the existence o a “Christian” nation, there is one last question. 

Is it not ironic that this motto should be put on money? One of Roosevelt’s issues was that the motto becomes trivialized when put on money. Most of our money isn’t exactly used for, well, let’s just say “Christlike” activities. Some guy making it rain on some strippers isn’t quite living up to our national motto; stacks of cash used to buy drugs or prostitutes reduce a powerful statement to mere ink on paper. 

I don’t claim the final word on this, nor do I want to start a fight. I find Roosevelt’s reasoning interesting. He was opposed to the motto not because the mention of God was offensive to people, but because the motto’s location was offensive to God. 

Teddy hit me with that idea like a big stick…and I didn’t even hear him coming!

Introducing Culture Shock and the New Testament

At first glance, our world seems “smaller” now than ever before. It is so small (studio audience: “how small is it???”) that Disney even wrote an annoying ear-worm of a song. Don’t click here, and you won’t hear it. Television, Internet, and movies all give us exposure to cultures and places we’ve never been in direct contact with before. That’s perfectly fine, though it may give us a false sense of familiarity to these other cultures. We may think we’ve got a better handle on the world than we actually do. Just because you read a lot of manga and say desu all the time doesn’t mean you could move to Japan tomorrow and get along just fine. Fully encountering another culture (not just a two-dimensional, fictional portrayal of one) means more than just different food and clothes. It goes deeper than even learning another language. We’re talking about some of our most basic views on the world. This is called culture shock.

Culture shock comes when we run out of a frame large enough to understand what is happening. For example, we have a “script” that we use when we greet each other. Let’s say you are at work and you see a co-worker. The co-worker smiles says, “Good morning, [your name],” and you say the same. You pass each other in the hall as you go about your business. No big deal. If you saw the same person ten minutes later and he or she smiled and said, “Good morning, [your name],” you would probably be taken back by this. That’s not how we normally greet each other after the initial greeting. If it happened a third time, you’d probably start avoiding this person. Why? Because your co-worker broke the “script.” The same rules apply for casually asking how someone is doing, or meeting a stranger. You talk to a loved one differently than you talk to someone taking your order at a drive-thru window. These examples are tiny, but they demonstrate how ordered our social interactions are. We haven’t even gotten into things like perceptions of fairness, what’s considered rude or polite behavior, or appropriate treatment of the opposite sex. Walking into a situation where a common action is misinterpreted as extremely offensive would be horrible, since you probably don’t even know what you did wrong. Suddenly, only having a taste for local food or pop music isn’t as important as you thought.

For those of us who grew up in a typical American-Christian culture, the so-called “world of the Bible” (a uselessly simplistic term) probably seems very comfortable. We’d probably be best friends with guys like David or John the Baptist, right? But, if you loaded your Sunday school class into a scienced-up DeLorean and went back in time, things might be a little different than you imagined. First of all, a DeLorean only holds like two people. Better take the weekly prayer meeting instead! [Cue sad trombone sound.] If you dropped off a bunch of Americans anywhere near the middle east today, we’re talking about major culture shock. Now go back 2,000 years. Is it going to be any better or worse? (Hint: worse.) There are language barriers, differences in basic religious assumptions, gender views, et cetera et cetera…

In his book, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, sociologist Bruce Malina writes, “Perhaps the first and largest step that a contemporary American can take toward understanding the Bible is to realize that in reading the Bible in English (or even Greek), we are in fact listening to the words of a transplanted group of foreigners. It takes only the ability to read to find out what these foreigners are saying, but it takes far more to find out what they mean” (Malina, 2). I’m not saying that the Bible should only be handled by experts. I am saying that we cannot treat the Bible like it was written by modern Americans. It often takes serious thought to understand the meanings behind what is said. I’ll not even hit 800 words in this post—there’s no way I’ve done this subject justice. But Dr. Malina’s work was really crucial to me in understanding the world of Jesus and the early Christian communities. I happened to think of this book a few days ago and my wheels started turning. The scholarly group he has been part of in the past, The Context Group, might be the subject of a future post. No promises.

For Bruce Malina’s book, see Amazon or Google Books.

Here We Go Again

In my experience, blog writing is like dieting. Every so often I start thinking, “I should write a blog!” I get all excited, planning out what kind of things I will want to say. I even write and publish a few posts, maybe get a few likes…and then quit.

Time to give it another try.

Like a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool…returns to his blog? Maybe I shouldn’t start off by misquoting scripture.

So, here is the inevitable “hello world!” sort of entry that begins myriads of dead blogs across the Internet. I’m just going to say a few things and have done with it. I’ll be brief, I promise.

I can’t possibly foresee all the kinds of things I may want to write about, but there are three main areas that have consumed my thoughts for a long time (just ask my wife). In simplest terms–Faith, Literature and History. (If only I had chosen a different major in college, Mathematics or Science would be on this list, too!)

Faith. My faith is rooted in the person and teachings of Jesus, but it only gets more complicated from there. The Incarnation of Christ embodies the kinds of mysteries that we scarcely approach in our days on earth. I wonder about these “far-off” kinds of truths, the numinous, the mysterium tremendumOn the practical side of these pursuits are the political and cultural implications of theological ideals. Biblical interpretation, sexuality and gender norms, economic policies, and racial issues–you know, easy to talk about, non-confrontational stuff like that–are all connected to basic beliefs about God (or not-God) and the world.

Literature. It’s perhaps no surprise that the books which have affected me most deeply touch on the kinds of issues described above. While a great many intelligent and skilled writers are approaching culture with faith in mind, so-called Christian fiction is seriously lacking in such depth. A casual glance inside a Christian book store seems to indicate that if you don’t like reading theology and church leadership books, you’d better like Amish romance. I’m optimistic that there will come a generation of thoughtful people of Faith who will write creative, powerful, and lasting literary fiction. I read a lot, and want to talk about what books have been meaningful to others.

History. I am interested in history because I’m interested in people. The world’s situation today didn’t appear ex nihilo, it is the result of decisions made in the past. The practical issues of faith described above are intimately rooted in history. I can’t study the beliefs of a particular church tradition while completely ignoring the political and cultural concerns of that same group.

Plus, I have a degree in archaeology, and I have to do something with all this dormant knowledge.

Now, a quick word on the name of this blog. The Reforming Mind is about growth. It has nothing to do with “reformed” theology, though I have nothing against it. I just don’t want my seminary brethren (and “sisteren”) to think this is primarily a blog about reformed theology.

Okay, that’s enough. This is a very non-committal intro post, so no promises about content. Bob Ross, painter of over 30,000 landscapes once told me, “this is your world,” and “there are no mistakes, just happy accidents.” Okay, so he was on TV when he said it, but he was looking right at me.

In honor of Bob Ross, welcome to my world.