Monday, July 20, 2009

In God We Trust - Banned at U.S. Capitol?

The Capitol Visitors Center was recently opened to the public. Many have been struck at the great presentations within. It contains some fine exhibits and information.

But it has been criticized because it contains NO reference to our nation's religious heritage (which is undeniable history whether one likes it or not). So the House and Senate passed resolutions directing the Architect of the Capitol to inscribe the Pledge of Allegiance and our national motto, In God We Trust, into the building. If you are a follower of such news you will not be surprised to learn that the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit to stop this.

Most such suits are based on the supposed "separation of church and state" that some think is in our First Amendment. It's not. That phrase is simply a metaphor used by Thomas Jefferson to describe one aspect of the Amendment. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" That's it. No statement that government may not recognize religion or refer to it. No removal of God.

Note the words "Congress" and "law" within the Amendment. A resolution like this is not a law. It is a directive to the maker of this building. No one is required to bow down to a god of any kind.

It is also interesting to note that Americans United also wish to stop the practice of declaring a National Day of Prayer. If they are doing so based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, perhaps they should check with the men who wrote it. We can't always get clear guidance from our history books and the journals of Congress, but in this case we sure can. The same Congress who ratified the First Amendment also petitioned President Washington to declare a national day of fasting and prayer.

Read the whole story here:

Fox News


Doug Indeap said...

Checking with James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, would reveal that he made plain he understood them to "[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government." Madison, Detached Memoranda (1817). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that old habits die hard and that tendencies of citizens and politicians could and sometimes did entangle government and religion (e.g., "the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress" and "for the army and navy" and "[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts"), he questioned whether these were "consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom." His response: "In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion." What then, Madison further inquired, should be made of these various actions already taken in the nation's then "short history" inconsistent with the Constitution? Ever practical, he answered not with a demand these actions be undone, but rather with an explanation to circumscribe their ill effect: "Rather than let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex [i.e., the law does not concern itself with trifles]: or to class it cum maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura [i.e., faults proceeding either from negligence or from the imperfection of our nature]."

The government's adoption of the phrase "In God we trust" as a national motto in 1956 was a mistake, which should be corrected. Under the First Amendment, our government has no business promoting or otherwise taking steps to establish religion. The government certainly shouldn't be proclaiming in a motto on the money it prints for us that it--or we--trust in god. That's just not the government's role.

History Matters said...


Thanks for adding your comment. That was very well said (I see that it is copied from a previous use on a different blog reply). But I must disagree. Here are a few reasons.

First, James Madison was indeed the chief wordsmith of the Constitution. But it's important not to confuse his personal opinions about the role of government with what the Constitutional Convention intended the Constitution to mean.

In describing the meaning of the Religion Clauses, Madison said, "The First Amendment was prompted because the people feared one sect might obtain preeminence, or two combine together and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform." [Printing "in God we trust" on money or a building does not compel people to worship a God.]

Would the Madison you describe have attended Christian worship services in the Capitol building? [He did.] Would that not have bothered his conscience?

The Library of Congress says this of Madison: "In notes for his June 8, 1789, speech introducing the Bill of Rights, Madison indicated his opposition to a 'national' religion. Most Americans agreed that the federal government must not pick out one religion and give it exclusive financial and legal support." (Boldface added)

Doug Indeap said...

You are right to distinguish between "personal opinions" and the intended meaning of the Constitution. In the first instance, of course, we (and the courts) search for that intent in the words of the Constitution itself. If that does not resolve the matter (as often is the case), courts may look beyond the Constitution to the documents and records of the drafting and ratification proceedings. Searching for the collective intent is problematic, naturally, since it involves discerning the intent of many individuals who, in various respects, were not always of one mind. If the official legislative history does not provide a satisfactory answer, the courts may look even further afield to the unofficial statements of individuals the courts consider knowledgeable and trustworthy sources, such as the Supreme Court did in considering Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists.

Madison's Detached Memoranda falls into this latter category. There Madison expressed his understanding of the meaning of the Constitution, i.e., its intent. In doing so, he voiced his own opinion to be sure, but not a "personal opinion" on the role of government, but rather his view of what he and the other founders actually did in the Constitution.

You are right, too, to note that Madison himself did some of the very things he said in his Detatched Memoranda were not consistent with the Constitution. (He noted as much.) His explanation was that he and other public servants were imperfect and could not always resist influences to lapse into old habits.

He made clear in any event three primary points: 1. Government actions like Congress’s appointment of chaplains for the House and Senate and army and navy and the Executive’s religious proclamations recommending thanksgivings and fasts are not consistent with the Constitution. 2. They should not be regarded as legitimate precedent of what the Constitution means or allows. 3. If we somehow fail to end or prevent such actions, rather than let them have the effect of legitimate precedent, it will be better to confine their ill effects by resort to some handy Latin legalisms–observing that the law does not concern itself with trifles or classing the actions as faults proceeding either from negligence or from the imperfection of our nature. He is suggesting how we can hold our noses and let some things slide without according them any legitimacy or precedential effect–so they should have no influence whatever on how we regard future government actions, except perhaps to stand as examples of mistakes to avoid.

Madison, of course, is only one of many founders and his views alone will not determine the issue, but his carefully expressed views directly on point can hardly be brushed aside as mere personal opinion. Rather, coming from the founder with perhaps the greatest hand in drafting both the Constitution and the First Amendment, they count for a lot.

History Matters said...


Thanks for reading and commenting. We probably agree more than disagree on some very basic points, if not their ultimate application, so I won't argue them here.

I will just respond to one passing statement in your recent reply. My objection to the use of Jefferson's Danbury letter in the Everson decision of 1947 not because I think the court should not consider diverse sources. Rather it is because the court seemed to base their outcome on the "separation" quote rather than the actual words of the First Amendment. After all, that metaphor is a bit vague, and is more easily bent one way or the other. They also did not seem to show much respect for precedent, which would have worked against the court's apparent will.

You might enjoy reading the following post, which addresses the issue in much more detail (by someone smarter than I). The author is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University:

Danger of a Metaphor