Tag Archives: history

Spinning History

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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.

Library of Congress

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.

Religion And The Constitution

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.

Religion and the Congress of the Confederation, 1774-89

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.

“A Wall Of Separation”

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.

Religion And The Bill Of Rights

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.

James Madison And National 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.

Coach Dave Daubenmire attempts to rewrite history again

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Coach Dave Daubenmire, former London, OH high school football coach and now National Director of Minutemen United and Founder of Pass the Salt Ministries, held a rally in Danbury, Connecticut Tuseday. Other religious conservatives in attendance were Bill Federer of Amerisearch, Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Save America, Greg Thompson of America Asleep kNOw More, Rev. Bob Schenck of National Clergy Council, Rusty Thomas of Elijah Ministries, Peter Wolfgang, Family Institute of Connecticut, and Mike Heath of Christian Civic League of Maine.

Danbury was the home of the Baptist church that wrote President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 about their concern with the lack of religious liberty in the state of Connecticut. The Baptist complaint was that the Connecticut state constitution did not prohibit the state from legislating about religious matters. As a consequence, they argued:

“…what religious privileges we [Baptists] enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Context of Danbury Letter

Daubenmire stated in his press release:

Standing on the 1st Amendment promise that ‘Congress shall make no law,’ we declare that Christians, and the Christian God will no longer be pushed back into the church. We believe, as the Founders did, in ‘the free exercise’ of our Faith, unhindered by the unconstitutional restrictions of government. It is our belief that no court decision in the history of America has had a greater impact on the moral condition of this nation than that issued by Justice Black in Everson case of 1947. For sixty years, the mouth of the church has been silenced, as we bought the lie that the church had no voice in the moral/political issues of our day.

News Conference: ‘Separation of Church and State’ Experts Prior to Rally

Yes, Daubenmire is against a ruling that upheld reimbursements for bus rides for private sectarian school students and those reimbursements have caused morality to collapse and for Christians to be locked in their churches….


Oh, sorry, of course the coach and all religious conservatives complain about the section of the Everson decision that used the concept of the “wall of separation” from Jefferson’s letter. As I noted in my last post, that use of the letter and the legal theory it spawned caused Christians to finally lose their special status intertwined within the government and our schools.

The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertain- [330 U.S. 1, 16] ing or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’ Reynolds v. United States, supra, 98 U.S. at page 164.

Everson v Board of Education (1947)

Of course Everson wasn’t the first Supreme Court case to evoke Jefferson’s words about church and state:

Accordingly, at the first session of the first Congress the amendment now under consideration was proposed with others by Mr. Madison. It met the views of the advocates of religious freedom, and was adopted. Mr. Jefferson afterwards, in reply to an address to him by a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association (8 id. 113), took occasion to say: ‘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 the 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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.’ Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.

Reynolds V. U.S., 98 U.S. 145 (1878)

It is not the first time that Daubenmire has tried to rewrite history. Looking at his bio on Minutemen United has this bit:

Dave Daubenmire, a veteran 25 year high school football coach, was spurred to action when attacked and eventually sued by the ACLU in the late 1990’s for allegedly mixing prayer with his coaching. After a two year battle for his 1st amendment rights and a determination to not back down, the ACLU relented and offered coach an out of court settlement. God honored his stand and the ACLU backed off. Coach’s courageous stand, an inspiration to Americans everywhere, demonstrated that the ACLU can be defeated.

Who Are the Minutemen?

Well in the stories reported at the time, the ACLU offered the London, OH school district an out for the obvious religious activities the coach and his staff made the football team participate in. The district agreed to prohibit future acts of religious indoctrination and established a system for reporting violations of the agreement to the United States District Court in Columbus. The settlement also called for the principal of London High School to report all complaints of religious activity not only to the district superintendent, but also to the ACLU.

According to the ACLU press release at the time of the settlement which came one day before a trial was set to begin in Federal court:

During discovery depositions held in the last two weeks, Head Coach David Daubenmire admitted to leading the football team in the Lord’s Prayer after games, passing out a scriptural verse to team members, allowing ministers to lead the team in prayer, and to using Bible stories as a part of certain team meetings. Daubenmire denied having engaged in such misconduct after November 1997, although witnesses told the ACLU that such conduct persisted into the fall of 1998.

ACLU Declares Victory in Ohio School Where Football Coach Led Prayers, Read Scripture (10/19/1999)

Also reported in the Columbus Dispatch as “Coach Must Keep Prayer Off Feld” (10/19/1999)

The ACLU didn’t back down and it was not a victory for the coach. The district saw the potential of losing the case and getting a worse outcome.

The coach resigned his position in 2000 and also sued the parents and community members who complained about his religious activities for libel and slander. The coach lost that lawsuit on appeal in March of 2004.

Judges allow another 10 Commandments historical sham

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While surfing the net tonight I came across news – that I missed the first time – that a 3 judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court ruled on Tuesday December 20th that a 10 Commandments display in Mercer County Kentucky was not unconstitutional.

The case brought by the ACLU, concerned the Commandments viewed alongside nine other documents, including the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence at the Mercer County courthouse in Harrodsburg.

The court used the recent precedent of McCreary County, Ky., v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky that was decided by the US Supreme Court this past June.

It found that since the Mercer County display didn’t have the sectarian history that the McCreary County one did, it was legal. Basically Mercer County passed one resolution and created the display to include the 9 other historical documents and the font size was no different for any of them, the judges noted, and there was no attempt to put the religious document at a higher level.

Of course those of us who support separation of church and state could point out (and we have) that the 10 Commandments are not part of this country’s legal history. In case you haven’t heard here some info:

Thus, were the first four commandments enacted into law today, they would constitute plain constitutional violations. It is an exceedingly strange, and strained, argument that argues the primacy of the Ten Commandments as the true American source of law when the first four simply cannot be enacted into law, because they would conflict with our Constitution. The first four prove that the Commandments are religious rules, not civil law. So as a starting point, only the latter six could possibly be nominees as possible sources of our governing laws.

That leaves us with only two commandments that are somewhat accurately echoed in current law: the rule against murder, and the rule against stealing. And even the rule against murder is not exactly the same as the Commandment: We recognize exceptions, such as self-defense, that the Commandment simply does not.

Moreover, it is impossible to attribute the continuing force of these laws solely to their Ten Commandments’ origin. And that origin is not unique: There is no civilized country that has not settled upon these two principles.

The Ten Commandments and American Law

The article mentions that other historical legal documents led to our current legal system. These include the Magna Carta and British common law.

The author of the article quoted above, Marci Hamilton, also noted:

Interestingly, over the centuries, many Christians have claimed that the Ten Commandments did not govern their conduct, because they were given dispensation from the Commandments through Christ–a claim that severely undermines the notion that the Ten Commandments were always considered by Christians to be the supreme and foundational law.

Court cases involving the display of the Decalogue never seem to focus on the non-historical value of it to our legal history. If they did then religious theocrats would lose every time. Instead judges use precedent and legal tests in church vs. state cases.

One common legal test is called the Lemon Test, named for the case where it was first used Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13 (1971):

Under Lemon, government action does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause if it (1) has a secular purpose; (2) does not have the primary or principal effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and (3) does not foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion.9 Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13 (1971). The first and second prongs have since been reformulated. After McCreary County, the first is now the predominant purpose test. McCreary County, 125 S. Ct. at 2733; id. at 2757 (Scalia, J., dissenting) (“[T]he [McCreary County majority] replaces Lemon’s requirement that the government have ‘a secular . . . purpose’ with the heightened requirement that the secular purpose ‘predominate’ over any purpose to advance religion.” (quoting Lemon, 403 U.S. at 612)). The second, the so-called “endorsement” test, asks whether the government action has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion.10 Adland v. Russ, 307 F.3d 471, 479 (6th Cir. 2002); Granzeier v. Middleton, 173 F.3d 568, 573 (6th Cir. 1999).

ACLU of Kentucky, et al. v. Mercer County, Kentucky, et al. (2005) p. 10

In summary, a government action (law, regulation, policy) is judged to see if it pass the 3 “prongs” of the test. An action can be unconstitutional even if it fails just one “prong” as the Dover, PA Intelligent Design case did.

The questions asked are: What was the intent? Does it advance or prohibit a religion? Does it cause excessive entanglement?

As noted in the quote above, the Lemon Test has been modified where the first “prong” now looks at the “predominate” purpose. That means what purpose was “to be the greater or greatest in importance”. The courts view is that this is a heightened requirement but what it is is a watered down “prong”.

If a government says they want to post the Decalogue to restore religious spirit then that would fail the “prong” but if they say the positing is to honor our history then it would seem to pass. Previously any religious purpose would be cause for it being illegal. Now we get actions that happen to have a religious purpose but it isn’t the primary purpose so courts have said it is ok.

People call it “accommodating”, that is changing the rules to fit the situation and we see a slow chipping away of the wall of separation of church and state. As more and more actions are squeezed under the modified Lemon Test the more government sponsored religious acknowledgement we will be forced to endure.

The 10 Commandments are a direct quote from the Bible but that isn’t enough to cause a government posting it to cross the constitution on its face. That’s why future cases should attack the historical argument in addition to finding a predominate religious purpose. If the historical basis is destroyed then all that is left is its religious purpose and that is the only reason theocrats have for posting it in the first place. Historical context in these cases is always a sham.

Such an argument would solve these cases in our favor.

*Side Note*

The ACLU took some lumps in the decision handed down in the Mercer case on December 20th. The judge giving the decision, Judge Richard Suhrheinrich, was not kind at all. He said:

Our concern is that of the reasonable person. And the ACLU, an organization whose mission is “to ensure that . . . the government [is kept] out of the religion business,” does not embody the reasonable person.

The ACLU’s argument contains three fundamental flaws. First, the ACLU makes repeated reference to “the separation of church and state.” This extra-constitutional construct has grown tiresome. The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state.

Second, the ACLU focuses on the religiousness of the Ten Commandments. No reasonable person would dispute their sectarian nature, but they also have a secular nature that the ACLU does not address. That they are religious merely begs the question whether this display is religious; it does not answer it.

Third, the ACLU erroneously–though perhaps intentionally–equates recognition with endorsement. To endorse is necessarily to recognize, but the converse does not follow.

ACLU of Kentucky, et al. v. Mercer County, Kentucky, et al. pp 13-14

Now I could do as my religious conservative friends do and scream about judicial activism etc…. but I won’t. The judges in this case are simply wrong. They used false premises to reach a false conclusion.

The ACLU could never meet the “reasonable person” requirement that Judge Suhrheinrich suggests because it is an organization and not a person. It wasn’t the ACLU complaining about the display, it was the person(s) it was representing. The courts complaint is simply unfair and biased. If their “standard” was common then the ACLU would never be able to defend people’s rights and our history would be altered for the worse.

The court is correct that a reasonable person would see the Mercer display and not automatically see it as a religious display. They would assume it was a historical display. That’s why if the ACLU had attacked the historical claim then it would show such a reasonable person to share a wrong assumption. Is it the purpose of government to advance a falsehood?

As for the court’s claim that endorsement doesn’t equal recognition all one has to do is point out that one sect is being recognized over all others. Where are examples of other religious laws in the display, like the Talmud or Shia? Logically, for it not to be an endorsement of Christianity then all religious laws have to be displayed.

The panel of judges in this case also make the false assumption that there is no “separation of church and state.” Previous courts, including the US Supreme Court in the McCreary County, Ky case and others used to decide this case, create a definite line between church and state. Their rulings always decide if that line is crossed. There is a line even if you don’t call it a wall. If there was in fact no “separation of church and state” then the line wouldn’t exist and there would be no need for the court to decide these types of cases.

Finally, it seems this court requires that a government action involving religion must fail all three “prongs” of the Lemon Test. Previous cases, including the recent Dover case, never had that requirement. The simple reason is that an action could pass muster under one or more the “prongs” and still be unconstitutional because it would fail one of the remaining “prongs.” The usual requirement is that an action must pass all three parts of the test and not the reverse.

The Mercer decision is just another example of accommodating religion in government for no other reason than to help Christians feel good about themselves. I hope the ACLU appeals because the court made some serious errors in applying previous case law in their decision.