Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A brief history of God in the United States of America

  By  ObamOcala on Wed Nov 20, 2013

This past week, conservatives found yet another reason to condemn President Barack Obama as "un-American." The Muslim Kenyan Socialist showed his true colors, they said, by omitting the words "under God" from a video reading of the Gettysburg Address.

Of course, the line of attack is silly. President Obama was reading from an original draft of the speech penned by Lincoln himself. Of the five existing contemporary written versions of the speech, three contain the phrase "under God." All three of those drafts were prepared after Nov. 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered the speech.

Newspaper transcriptions of the day - which, because of the vaguries of telegraph service, often varied in wording - do all seem to agree that Lincoln added the words "under God," extemporaneously it seems, when he gave the speech, which is why the phrase appears in subsequent drafts, but not in copies written beforehand.

Should Ken Burns, who prepared the video, have considered the possibility of controversy when he selected that particular passage to feature President Obama, given the skepticism on the far right of the president's religious beliefs? Perhaps. Then again, it's my opinion that Barack Obama could conclude every sentence of every speech with a reference to the Christian God, and it still wouldn't satisfy the religious right. Their motivation is less about religion than it is about portraying President Obama as "the other," and therefore hostile to the nation he leads.

But the controversy did get me thinking - what, exactly, is God's relationship to the United States, and our relationship to God? I knew in rough form how the church-state relationship has evolved in this country, but I didn't know some of the details. And I'm fascinated by what I've learned. I'll share my newfound (and prior) knowledge below the sacred symbol of the Orange Sect of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

One thing I knew about the founding fathers is that many of them were deists, but I confess I had only a vague notion of what that meant. I've since learned that deism grew out of The Age of Enlightenment, and that it's adherents, while they accepted the existence of a deity, were highly skeptical of organized religion, miracles and the notion that a god intervened directly in the lives of individuals.

The deist philosophy permeates both The Declaration of Indepence (in its brief references to God) and the Constitution (in its lack of same).

Consider the Declaration (emphasis added):

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...

It's hard to imagine a modern-day evangelical Christian putting "the Laws of Nature" ahead of God, or, for that matter, referring to God as "Nature's God." And in the second paragraph, the authors of the Declaration abandoned references to God altogether, preferring instead to speak of a "Creator." Those phrases are directly out of the deist playbook.

The Constitution, meanwhile, purposefully omits any mention of God whatsoever. Organized religion, however, is mentioned - prominently - in the Bill of Rights ... at the very top of the Bill of Rights, in fact. We all know the words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...

It's no accident that the so-called "Establishment Clause" tops the list. Ironically, it was the concerns of Protestants, primarily Baptists, which led to its inclusion. Throughout the Colonial Period, the Church of England was the official church of Virginia, and members of other religions, especially Jews and Protestants, were frequently the targets of religious persecution.

To address the concerns of members of those religious groups, Thomas Jefferson - a member of the Virginia General Assembly - introduced the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which would dis-establish the Church of England, in the assembly in 1779. It was finally passed in 1786, with help from James Madison. To further quell the concerns of members of minority religions - and to gain their support over anti-federalists competing with them for seats at the ratifying convention - Madison and fellow federalist James Gordon, Jr. promised to propose language prohibiting the establishment of an official federal religion as an amendment to the Constitution. And so the Establishment Clause came to pass.

Modern-day Fundamentalist Christian revisionists like David Barton now argue that the Establishment Clause was not intended to separate religion and government completely. To back up their claim, they point out that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution, and wasn't mentioned until a Supreme Court ruling in 1878 (some argue it didn't appear until rulings in the late 20th Century).

That's not true. The phrase was first coined by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury (Conneciticut) Baptist association on Jan. 1, 1802 (emphasis added):

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."

Madison also used the phrase on at least one occasion. It seems clear from their own writings what the framers of the First Amendment intended in regards to the entanglement of religion and politics.

The only other mention of organized religion in the Constitution comes in Article VI, paragraph 3, and further amplifies where the founders stood on the subject (emphasis added):

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

The United States' official position as a secular nation was further affirmed by another founding father, John Adams, during his presidency. Privateers in the service of the Barbary nations - Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli and Tunis - were taking American ships in the Meditteranean and holding their crews for ransom or selling them into slavery. At one point, it was feared (wrongly) that Benjamin Franklin had been captured by the Barbary pirates.

The fledgling United States didn't have a strong enough navy to project sufficient power into the Med to stop the privateers, so the federal government negotiated treaties with each of the four nations, promising annual payments in exchange for safe passage for American ships. Article 11 of the treaty with the Pasha of Tripoli contained these words:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims] — and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The Treaty of Tripoli was unanimously ratified by the Senate on June 7, 1797, and signed by Adams.

By the early 1800s, deism was beginning to fade. The next appearance of God in our national life came during the War of 1812, when an attorney and amateur poet named Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry. He was inspired to put pen to paper and write a poem, the first stanza of which is well-known by anyone who has ever attended a sporting event, or watched one on TV:

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Those words were, of course, later put to music and adopted as our national anthem. But the poem actually went on for three more stanzas, the last of which reads:

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!

Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Wow - who took God out of the national anthem? Oh, wait ...

Key not withstanding, it would be 50 years before a modified version of the phrase "In God is our trust" came to the fore in our national life. The United States Congress, eager to imply that God was on the side of the Union in the American Civil War, mandated in 1864 that some United States coins include the phrase "In God We Trust." But the appearance of the motto on our coinage was not uniform or continuous, and came and went on various coins throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1907, another pious Congress was pushing to add the phrase to the $20 coin. President Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican and Dutch Reformed Christian who sometimes attended church with his wife, an Episcopalian) vehemently opposed the move:

“My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege…”

It was not until 1938 that "In God We Trust" began appearing on all U.S. coins.

As for that other famous expression of American religiosity, "One nation, under God," not only was it never stated as a founding principle, it hardly made an appearance at all until the mid 20th Century. In my admittedly limited research, I've found no mention of such a phrase before the turn of the last century, other than Lincoln's extemporaneous and gratuitous inclusion of it in the Gettysburg Address.

It certainly wasn't in the original Pledge of Allegiance, penned in 1892 by socialist (ah, the irony) minister Francis Bellamy. His version read, simply:

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Revisions in 1923 (adding "to" before "the republic"), 1923 (changing "my Flag" to "the Flag of the United States") and 1924 (adding "of America" to "the Flag of the United States") still failed to make any room for God, and somehow the republic survived.

In fact, it wasn't until the 1950s that God achieved His current level of entrenchment in our national life. The Cold War was in full swing, and many attacked the Soviet Union not for being a totalitarian state, but for its institutionalized atheism. This was the era of "Godless Commies," and American politicians were eager to show their piety to differentiate themselves from their Soviet counterparts.

It was during this period that God was enshrined on our currency and in the pledge. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, had added "one nation, under God" to the pledge on their own, and instigated a grassroots effort to make the change official. Congress obliged in 1954. Then in 1956, Congress found another way to insinuate religion into our lives by dumping the nation's unofficial motto - E pluribus unum, or "Out of Many, One" - making "In God We Trust" our official motto, and mandating that the new phrase be placed on all U.S. currency (1957 marked the first time the phrase began appearing on our paper money for the first time).

So there you have it. Our nation is 237 years old, but only for the last 60 of those years has God been officially enshrined in our national life. And to avoid conflict with the Establishment Clause, our nation's god is of necessity a pretty weak and generic one.

In fact, those Christians who continue to offer up having "one nation, under God" in our pledge and "In God We Trust" on our currency as proof that we are a "Christian nation" don't have a leg to stand on. In a 2004 Pledge of Allegiance case, Elk Grove Unified School District vs. Newdow, a majority on the Supreme Court ruled that the inclusion of "one nation, under God" was permissible under the Establishment Clause because it has become an act of "ceremonial deism." Writing her own opinion but concurring with the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote:

"Whatever the sectarian ends its authors may have had in mind, our continued repetition of the reference to 'one Nation under God' in an exclusively patriotic context has shaped the cultural significance of that phrase to conform to that context. Any religious freight the words may have been meant to carry originally has long since been lost."

And that about wraps it up for God - or at least for the fundamentalist Christian version of Him.


1 Comment:

Doug Indeap said...

Good points well put.

Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution, much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the first place, the Supreme Court has thoughtfully, authoritatively, and repeatedly decided as much; it is long since established law. In the second place, the Court is right. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of "We the people" (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.