Idolatry: the substitution of something earthly for the only true object of veneration -- God. Forbidden by the Bible, it has remained an irresistible temptation through the ages, as the widespread use of art objects in worship indicates.
Now the United States Postal Service, about as beleaguered an institution as there is, has inadvertently given its signature product the status of an idol, engendering complaints and causing one element of an extensive new marketing campaign to be scrapped.
"In Priority We Trust," read the signs sent out to post offices across the country, echoing the phrase adopted as official U.S. motto in 1956, but slighting the Almighty by replacing the word "God." According to the USPS, some people objected. (The postal service did not disclose any specific complaints.) As a result, the ads were withdrawn. Spokesman Tad Kelley explained,
"The 'In Priority Mail We Trust' elements were one component of a multi-channel campaign to launch a new sweep of priority products available online and in post offices on July 29. Some customers voiced concerns with the phrase. Being sensitive to their concerns, we directed affected post offices to remove the elements."
But the USPS can't escape criticism, as the cash-strapped independent agency of the federal government now faces questions over the expense of the wasted signage.
Might the Postal Service have overreacted in accommodating its customers' hypersensitivity, and thereby squandered precious resources? "In Priority We Trust" seems harmless enough -- effective, even. But it's hard to blame them for being skittish, given the barrage of criticism they face over finances -- losses totaled $16 billion last year -- and operational changes (cutting delivery, closing locations).
It's interesting to note that the phrase "In God We Trust" is an invention of the U.S. government, having entered the national consciousness through the currency. According to the Treasury Department's website, "Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country" during the Civil War, a time of "increased religious sentiment", urging that the U.S. government "recognize the Deity on United States coins."
"This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism," read one such letter, from a Pennsylvania minister. "This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.
Chase agreed -- "No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense," he wrote to the director of the Philadelphia mint; "The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins" -- but an act of Congress was required to make the change. Among the mottos Chase approved was one of his own devising: "IN GOD WE TRUST." Congress passed the relevant legislation on April 22, 1864, and the phrase made its debut on the 1864 two-cent coin.
Further acts of Congress extended and standardized its use, and all U.S coins since 1938 bear the inscription. "In God We Trust" got a big promotion in 1956 when it became the country's official motto, and the following year it began to appear on paper currency. Also under President Eisenhower, "the biggest ceremony of its kind in Postal Office history" accompanied "the introduction of the first stamp with a religious message": "In God We Trust" arcing above the crown of the Statue of Liberty. (Postage: 8 cents.) Happier times for the nation's mail.