“One nation under God indivisible with liberty and Justice for all.” Every citizen has recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Our founders envisioned that, not only our leaders but, all citizens would honor the principle of ‘all men being equal before God’.
We have been taught that America honors the concept of ‘separation of church and state’; that we are a secular Nation. The drafters of our Constitution’s First Amendment’s Establishment Clause[i] were adamant that religious beliefs not influence our leaders’ decision-making process.
Equality and secularism do not exist. Our Nation has never before been so divided. We are experiencing a collective existential crisis.
In a recent talk, spiritualist Marianne Williamson said:
Recurrent theme [is that our] country has deviated from the vision of its founders but has always self-corrected. This time the United States has veered so far off course that unless we come together soon correction may fall outside our reach [ii].
The good news is that Sir Winston Churchill astutely observed that, “…you can always count on America to do the right thing – after they have tried everything else.”
The Birth of a Nation
Secularism dates back to medieval times. Secularity derives from the Latin wordsaecularis. As it applies to governance, saecularis translates to ‘worldly’ or the ‘state of being separate’.
To that end, Thomas Jefferson, one of the authors of our Declaration of Independence, penned these words:
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[iii] (Emphasis Added).”
Related is our motto: “E Pluribus Uno” or “out of many one”.
Secularism has been a murky concept from day one, attributable to several factors. First, as a Nation we suffer the vestiges of historical hatreds and prejudices, giving rise to a lack of respect for our brethren. Second, God has been a part of American history and, yes, our government, since its founding. Third, as to our constitutionally protected rights of freedom of religion, thought and expression, we have not only failed to be respectful of others but, have not been inclusive.
Examples of how religion has impacted our Nation’s governance include:
- In both the federal and state systems, schools follow the Christian liturgical calendar, and employees enjoy paid Christmas vacation. This is augmented by federal civil rights statutes protecting freedom of religion so that those not Christian can honor their own religious practices.
- Our Presidents have sworn to uphold the oath of office on a Bible.
- The Central Intelligence Agency’s motto, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” comes from the Old Testament’s Book of John[iv].
- Our paper currency is inscribed with the motto, “In God we Trust”.
However, in recent years, there have been many instances of a lack of mutual respect for others’ freedom of religion and expression; many of which are tied to our government’s adherence to religiously-rooted historical practices. The practices ought to be respected with their modern day implementation being both neutral and inclusive. This too has not been the case.
For instance, the first Congress, the same Congress that passed the First Amendment, enacted legislation providing for paid Chaplains in the House and Senate[v]. However, despite the United States being a melting pot of individuals from every ethnicity and religious background, every Chaplain employed by our Nation has white, male and Christian[vi].
The constitutionality of chaplains in a state legislature was upheld in 1983 by the United States Supreme Court. The Court stated the practice dated back to the Continental Congress in 1774, noting that the custom “is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country” from colonial times and the founding of the republic[vii].
Dating back to the same Era, the United States has observed, in one form or another, a National Day of Prayer. Fasting and prayer were first established in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress.
Beginning in 1798 with President John Adams, most presidents have issued a proclamation, urging Americans to pray on this day; with the notable exceptions of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson[viii]. In 2015, Barack Obama signed the annual proclamation but did not host the customary White House event commemorating the day.
The National Day of Prayer was codified in 1952 with citizens asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation” on the first day of May[ix]. Constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer has been upheld by a federal appellate court. The challenge was raised by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist organization, in a federal district court.
On April 15, 2010 U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the statute establishing the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional as it is “an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function.” Judge Crabb delayed enforcement of her ruling pending appellate review[x].
On April 14, 2011 a three judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals[xi]unanimously overturned Judge Crabb’s decision:
The panel ruled that FFRF did not have standing to sue because the National Day of Prayer had not caused them harm and stated that “a feeling of alienation cannot suffice as injury.”
The court further stated that “the President is free to make appeals to the public based on many kinds of grounds, including political and religious, and that such requests do not obligate citizens to comply and do not encroach on citizens’ rights.
The federal appeals court also cited Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which referenced God seven times and prayer three times [xii].
In 1984, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a city displaying a Crèche during the Christmas season. The challenge was brought under the Establishment Clause. The Court ruled that displaying the Crèche was not an effort to advocate a particular religious message and that the display had “legitimate secular purposes”. It explained that the Constitution “affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any[xiii].”
Respect for custom and the respectful expression of custom has also been an issue in the United States. The most recent example comes on the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri controversy in which individuals have flown the Confederate flag as a symbol of open hostility to our African-American population and its supporters. While there can be no dispute that the Confederate flag has been a part of American history since 1861 and, thereafter, a part of American culture, when deployed in this manner it is no different than the costumes worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan. When African-Americans demand that a Confederate flag flown in a ‘neutral’ setting be taken down, it is a form of reverse racism.
“There are few symbols so inelastic and so static that they cannot be stretched to accommodate our own complicated, personal histories in ways that feel genuine and worth protecting[xiv]”, wrote journalist Gene Demby.
Our Duty as Citizens
Thomas Jefferson further penned these words:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
We are the stewards of this Democracy. As Marianne Williamson recently said, “An injustice to one of us is an injustice to all of us. Removal from a situation does not excuse us as Americans.”
Mr. Demby wisely commented that, “…like it or not, we’re probably doomed to keep talking past each other until we find a way to at least acknowledge that messiness[xv].”
It is our responsibility to insure that the exercise of individual liberty rights is balanced against the common good. It is our duty to insure that the spirit of our Constitution is upheld. We have two paths that we must follow. First, we choose how we treat others. Second, we have the right to vote for leaders who will further the common good. In our ever-increasing diverse and divided society, this has never before been so important.
[i] Establishment clause overview, September 16, 2011, First Amendment Center, as found on the www at http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/establishment-clause (“The first of the First Amendment’s two religion clauses reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…
Note that the clause is absolute. It allows no law. It is also noteworthy that the clause forbids more than the establishment of religion by the government. It forbids even laws respecting an establishment of religion. The establishment clause sets up a line of demarcation between the functions and operations of the institutions of religion and government in our society. It does so because the framers of the First Amendment recognized that when the roles of the government and religion are intertwined, the result too often has been bloodshed or oppression.”).
[ii] Every Monday evening Marianne Williamson delivers a live talk with the link expiring after 72 hours. The talk quoted herein was delivered on Monday, July 6, 2015.
[iii] Creating the Declaration of Independence, Library of Congress, as found on the www at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/interactives/declaration-of-independence/equal/index.html (“The concept that all men are created equal was a key to European Enlightenment philosophy. But the interpretation of “all men” has hovered over the Declaration of Independence since its creation. Although most people have interpreted “all men” to mean humanity, others have argued that Jefferson and the other authors of the Declaration meant to exclude women and children. Within the context of the times it is clear that “all men” was a euphemism for “humanity,” and thus those people, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, who used the Declaration of Independence to demand equality for African Americans and women seized the historical as well as the moral high ground.”).
[iv] John 8:32. See gen “CIA Observes 50th Anniversary of Original Headquarters Building Cornerstone Laying” November 5, 2009 as found on the www athttps://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/ohb-50th-anniversary.html (“Considerable preparation went into planning for the ceremony where Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen W. Dulles would assist President Eisenhower in laying the cornerstone of the Headquarters Building. Dignitaries and other special guests received engraved RSVP invitations….Dulles gave introductory remarks, highlighting this important stage in the CIA’s history and quoting the motto taken from the Gospel according to St. John — which was inscribed on the building’s face — “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”).
[v] The Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives is one of the officers of the United States House of Representatives. The House relies on the first half of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 of the United States Constitution, “The House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers,” as authority for it to elect a Chaplain,
Chaplains are elected as individuals and can be members of any religion or faith group. As of 2011, all House Chaplains have been Christian. Guest Chaplains, recommended by congressional members to deliver the session’s opening prayer in lieu of the House Chaplain, have represented other religious groups, including Judaism and Islam.
[vi] Office of the Chaplain, United States House of Representatives, July 9, 2015, as found on the www at http://chaplain.house.gov/archive/ (The current Chaplain, the Reverend Patrick J. Conroy, S.J., recently gave this prayer:
Loving God, we give You thanks for giving us another day.
In these most important days and debates here in the people’s House, we beg You to send Your spirit of wisdom as the Members struggle to do the work that has been entrusted to them. Inspire them to work together with charity, and join their efforts to accomplish what our Nation needs to live into a prosperous and secure future.
In this week in the wake of celebrating the great blessings bestowed upon our Republic, please bless those men and women who serve our Nation in uniform wherever they may be.
Please keep all the Members of this Congress, and all who work for the people’s House, in good health, that they might faithfully fulfill the great responsibility given them by the people of this great Nation.
Bless us this day and every day. May all that is done here be for Your greater honor and glory.
[vii] Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983).
[viii] Adams, John, “Proclamation – Recommending a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer”, March 6, 1799, The American Presidency Project. University of California, Santa Barbara; and Adams, John, “By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation”. March 31, 1798, The Weekly Magazine 1 (9): 287.
[ix] 36 U.S.C. § 119 : US Code – Section 119: National Day of Prayer.
[x] Bennett, Matthew, “Defending National Day of Prayer”, July 8, 2010, ACLU, as found on the www at http://old.aclj.org/national-day-of-prayer/defending-national-day-of-prayer (“We are once again in federal court defending the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer. This time representing members of Congress in a critically important amicus brief filed in a federal appeals court. As you know, a federal district court in Wisconsin recently ruled in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundations claim that the National Day of Prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
This ruling is clearly flawed and out of step with more than 200 years of history, Supreme Court precedent, and multiple acts of Congress.”).
[xi] “National Day of Prayer goes on despite ruling”, May 6, 2010, CNN, as found on the www athttp://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/05/06/national.prayer.day/ (“The 59th annual National Day of Prayer was held Thursday against a backdrop of controversy and growing doubts about the future of the event, which a federal judge recently declared unconstitutional.
President Truman signed a bill establishing an official National Day of Prayer in 1952, but U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in Wisconsin ruled April 15 that the law violates the ban on government-backed religion.
The Justice Department is appealing the case on behalf of the White House. An injunction against the National Day of Prayer will not take effect until all government appeals have been exhausted.”).
[xii] Winter, Michael, “Appeals court rules National Day of Prayer constitutional”, April 14, 2011, OnDeadline, as found on the www athttp://content.usatoday.com/communities/ondeadline/post/2011/04/in-reversal-appeals-panel-rules-national-day-of-prayer-constitutional-/1#.VakNF_lViko (The appellate judges reasoned that although the proclamation is directed at all citizens, none is obligated to pray “any more than a person would be obliged to hand over his money if the President asked all citizens to support the Red Cross or other charities.
The president frequently calls on citizens to do things they prefer not to do, possibly on religious or political grounds, the court said. However, the Republican Party would not have standing to bring a lawsuit against the president if he speaks to his supporters or tries to sway the undecided, Easterbrook wrote.
The opinion cites President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which mentions God seven times and prayer three times.
“The address is chiseled in stone at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall,” Easterbrook wrote. “An argument that the prominence of these words injures every citizen, and that the Judicial Branch could order them to be blotted out, would be dismissed as preposterous.”
See also “7th Circuit dismisses legal challenge to National Day of Prayer”, April 15, 2011, First Amendment Center, as found on the www athttp://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/7th-circuit-dismisses-legal-challenge-to-national-day-of-prayer (“A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation did not have standing to sue because while it disagrees with the president’s proclamation, that proclamation has not caused the group any harm.”).
[xiii] Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984) (Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Powell, Rehnquist, and O’Connor joined. The Court held that the crèche did not violate the Establishment Clause based on the test created in Lemon v. Kurtzman. It ruled that the Crèche is a passive representation of religion and that there was “insufficient evidence to establish that the inclusion of the Crèche is a purposeful or surreptitious effort to express some kind of subtle governmental advocacy of a particular religious” view.).
The High Court ignored the fact that all major religions acknowledge, at a minimum, the birth of Jesus as a Prophet. See Lardner, C., ISIS Gone Corporate, January 17, 2015, as revised on June 21, 2015, as found on the www athttps://cynthiamlardner.wordpress.com/.
[xiv] Demby, Gene, “When The ‘Heritage’ In ‘Heritage Not Hate’ Is More Skynyrd Than Stonewall Jackson”, July 14, 2015, NPR, as found on the www athttp://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/07/14/422618163/when-the-heritage-in-heritage-not-hate-is-more-skynyrd-than-stonewall-jackson?sc=17&f=&utm_source=iosnewsapp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=app (“Friday’s ceremony to remove Friday’s ceremony to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s state Capitol grounds was scored by loud cheers and applause from the huge, largely black crowd who came to see it off. The contrast between the cheers and the official pomp — marching soldiers in dress grays funereally handling the furled flag — was yet another example of the wildly divergent orientations people have toward the Confederate flag.
In a less-covered event closer to home, another beloved and polarizing symbol lost its co-sign from the state last week. On Wednesday, a judge agreed that the federal trademark office could strip the NFL’s Washington Redskins of its trademark on the basis that the team’s name is disparaging toward Native Americans.
The arguments in favor of these two icons sound a lot alike — they’re just about pride of place and tradition, and the folks reading them as racist are missing the point.”).