I was zooming the web the other evening for some research when I came across a virtual exhibit on the Library of Congress website. It was titled Religion and the Founding of the American Republic and it piqued my interest, naturally. However after reading the text accompanying the exhibit objects, one would think the authors of the text are spinning history to justify a religious right agenda.
The Library of Congress is the research arm of the United States Congress and is also known as the nation’s library. It holds:
29 million catalogued books and other print materials in 470 languages; more than 58 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America, including a Gutenberg Bible, over 1 million US Government publications, 1 million issues of world newspapers spanning the past three centuries, 33,000 bound newspaper volumes, 500,000 microfilm reels, and over 6,000 comic books; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, 4.8 million maps, sheet music and 2.7 million sound recordings.
The Library has also begun digitizing many significant written works in its holdings and those holdings are available for viewing through a web browser on its website. It is not an academic institution but it does some research in the library sciences and one would think that being a government agency, it would try to operate in the spirit of the nation’s laws and policies.
The exhibit Religion and the Founding of the American Republic sets out to show:
The efforts of the Founders of the American nation to define the role of religious faith in public life and the degree to which it could be supported by public officials that was not inconsistent with the revolutionary imperatives of the equality and freedom of all citizens is the central question which this exhibition explores.
Unfortunately the exhibit spins some unusual conclusions about the history the exhibit highlights.
For example is the passage:
Franklin Requests Prayers in the Constitutional Convention
Benjamin Franklin delivered this famous speech, asking that the Convention begin each day’s session with prayers, at a particularly contentious period, when it appeared that the Convention might break up over its failure to resolve the dispute between the large and small states over representation in the new government. The eighty one year old Franklin asserted that “the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth–that God governs in the Affairs of Men.” “I also believe,” Franklin continued, that “without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel.” Franklin’s motion failed, ostensibly because the Convention had no funds to pay local clergymen to act as chaplains.
The record shows that the lack of funds for a chaplain was not the reason his motion failed. The motion failed because the convention adjourned for the day before a vote was taken and it was not brought up again. They debated the issue for a time and no one wanted to pass it. When an assembly doesn’t wish to vote on a motion on the floor they can either table it or adjourn and it goes away, The convention chose to adjourn. See: The Franklin Prayer Myth
Then there is this example:
The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity.
Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by “covenant theology,” a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they “should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears.” Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.
But history also shows that many of these “religious” actions were taken for political reasons – not religious reasons.
During this same period of time the “tradition” of issuing proclamations for days of fasting, prayer and Thanksgiving was also begun. It is again important to note that the “proclamations” and Chaplains were begun before we were a nation, and that at least in the case of the proclamations it frequently served a political object far more than it did a religious purpose. (See The Political Move That Backfired) In the early days at least, a proclamation was almost always offered at times when it was felt that a unifying act was needed to hold together the people of the young nation and accomplish a political goal. The first of these proclamations was made on November 1, 1777 not only to give thanks, but also to aid the war effort. The Congress chose 18th of December 1777 for this proclamation, a date that used to be referred to as the home harvest time.
Chaplains and Congress: An Overview from 1774 to early 1800’s
This is the same thing President Bush did after 9/11. He called for a National Day of Prayer. Not for any religious reasons but for a unifying/political reason. It also happened when Congress added the words “Under God” to the pledge. It wasn’t for any religious significance – it was in opposition to the so-called “godless” Soviets during the Cold War.
The final example I’ll post in this entry concerns the discussion of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The exhibit starts out by saying:
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth Presidents, are generally considered less hospitable to religion than their predecessors, but evidence presented in this section shows that, while in office, both offered religion powerful symbolic support.
Presented here are both the handwritten, edited draft of the letter and an adjusted facsimile showing the original unedited draft. The draft of the letter reveals that, far from dashing it off as a “short note of courtesy,” as some have called it, Jefferson labored over its composition. Jefferson consulted Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut and Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts while drafting the letter. That Jefferson consulted two New England politicians about his messages indicated that he regarded his reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion.
The exhibit is correct in saying that the meaning of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists has been debated for many years but it is wrong in its conclusion that it was simply a political letter and not a pronouncement. The fact that he sent a draft to two other people shows he thought it was a very important letter.
Granger advised him not to change a word Lincoln, on the other hand, thought it would be prudent to eliminate the part of the letter in which Jefferson emphasized his opposition to proclaiming days of fasting and thanksgiving, on the grounds that this might cost him political support in the eastern states, which had long-established traditions of government proclamations of thanksgiving.
It was a response to the very thesis of the Baptists’ letter: that religious rights are by nature inalienable. The Baptists wanted that view to prevail in Connecticut. Jefferson’s metaphor assured them that this was already true on the national level, and that the federal government had no right to legislate on religious matters in any way.
The exhibit also spins James Madison’s view on church and state. It says:
James Madison took the lead in steering such a bill through the First Federal Congress, which convened in the spring of 1789. The Virginia Ratifying Convention and Madison’s constituents, among whom were large numbers of Baptists who wanted freedom of religion secured, expected him to push for a bill of rights. On September 28, 1789, both houses of Congress voted to send twelve amendments to the states. In December 1791, those ratified by the requisite three fourths of the states became the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Religion was addressed in the First Amendment in the following familiar words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 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.
The quoted material above is just plain wrong. Madison was more a separationist than Jefferson in words and actions. The author of the exhibit text makes a huge mistake in interpreting the word “national” as in National church. Madison believed any government support for religion was creating a national church. The Constitutional Principle website goes into great detail on the context and meaning of Madison’s words. Here is a brief quote from it:
Thus the proposition that Madison meant merely a national church or no preference in the support of religion is groundless, . . . to Madison “a NATIONAL religion” broadly covered as much as even the most trifling matters. Chief Justice Rehnquist built most of his opinion favoring the constitutionality of non preferential government aid to religion on the baseless reading he gave to ” national religion,” without considering or knowing that Madison believed that military chaplains or fast day constituted a national religion.26 Rehnquist merely read his own values into ” National religion” (as did Madison). The views that Madison expressed in 1789 on establishment of religion conform generally to his views, whether a thought in terms of the general assessment, a religious establishment, or a national religion. In each instance he wanted “perfect separation”27 between government and religion.
The important historical fact to remember is the US Constitution is godless and the founding fathers had ample opportunity to install God into it and the Bill of Rights and they chose NOT to that. Every attempt to do so during the convention was defeated.
Yes, the founders went to church and prayed. Some even issued days of Thanksgiving or some thought religion was important for the new republic. But that doesn’t “prove” that our government is suppose to accommodate religion by doing away with separation of church and state.
The Library of Congress exhibit Religion and the Founding of the American Republic lacks balance in its interpretation and in some cases is wrong in its conclusions.