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One Nation Under God?

Whether it’s the question of Intelligent Design being taught in schools, or who in the religious community presidential candidates associate with, it seems that we can’t escape the idea of Church and State in America – it regularly makes the news even here in Britain. Roger Trigg, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Warwick University, asks in his latest book whether faith has a place in a pluralist society. Below is an extract from the book – Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized? – which examines the notion of the US being One Nation Under God.

According to the Bill of Rights, attached to the Constitution of the United States of America in 1789, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ At a stroke, the separation of Church and State, and religious liberty, were made cornerstones of American life. Yet, at the same time, the United States is a very religious country, and religion is often publicly invoked. Coins proclaim ‘In God We Trust’, and the Pledge of Allegiance now refers to one nation ‘under God’. From the beginning of the Republic, there were examples of official religious observance. Presidents proclaimed days of prayer. George Washington himself added the phrase ‘so help me God’ in taking the oath of office as President, with his hand on the Bible. Official chaplains are appointed to legislatures, a practice upheld in 1983, in a case concerning Nebraska. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysberg address included the words ‘this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom’. No contemporary inaugural address by a President is complete without biblical references and some invocation of God. The Senate Chamber in the State House in Boston has the words ‘God Save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ emblazoned at the front.

So one could go on, with numerous examples of the way in which religion is woven into the fabric of public life at federal and state levels. As Chief Justice Rehnquist pointed out in a judgement in 2004, even the Court Marshal’s opening proclamation in the Supreme Court concludes with the words ‘God save the United States and this honourable Court’, a phrase which can be traced back to 1827. The founders of the United States may have had their reasons for not having a religious establishment at federal level, but they did not think that they lived in a secular nation. As James Hitchcock comments: ‘The Founders simply assumed the reality of a Christian nation, and thought that liberty was made possible through the discipline forged by religion.’ They certainly did not believe that religion was only a private matter. As Hitchcock sums up the situation:

“The overall result was the emergence of what has been called a ‘de facto establishment’ of a generalized kind of Protestantism that manifested itself in numerous public and official ways, a pattern present not only from the beginning of the Republic, but already part of the processes by which that Republic was called into being.”

An unfortunate aspect of this was a latent, and sometimes overt, anti-Catholicism, which was itself often the motive for the insistence on the separation of Church and State. Particularly after major immigration from Catholic countries, there was a fear of the influence of the Catholic hierarchy. The fear of Establishment had even deeper roots. It was often voiced by groups such as Baptists, who, like the Amish, believed that the people of God should be kept separate, and that Christ’s kingdom had different purposes from that of the civil State. One such was Roger Williams, who was banished from Massachusetts in 1635, and went on to found ‘Providence’, Rhode Island. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, those who had rejected the Anglican Establishment in England went on to make a new one of their own. Congregationalism was in fact established in the state until 1833.

The very fact that Churches could be established in states decades after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution shows that the Establishment Clause was seen as applying only at federal level. Lingering distrust of the Church of England, coupled with denominational rivalry, led the Founders to be determined that the federal government should pursue a policy of neutrality concerning denominations. Yet there was another reason. James Madison, a significant figure in drawing up the Constitution, wrote in The Federalist Papers that it was important not only to guard against oppression by rulers, but ‘to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part’. There are, in other words, certain freedoms too precious to be at the mercy of majority vote. Madison argued that whilst all authority in the United States ‘will be derived from and dependent on the society’, the society will be broken up into so many interest groups that power can be diffused. He says:

“In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”

He was a leading opponent of Establishment, even in his home state of Virginia, where there had been an Anglican one. There had been positive coercion, with legal penalties. We are told, in an example referred to in the present day Supreme Court, that in the Colony of Virginia:

“Ministers were required by law to conform to the doctrines and rites of the Church of England; and all persons were required to attend church and observe the Sabbath, were tithed for the public support of Anglican ministers, and were taxed for the costs of building and repairing churches.”

With that historical background, it is hardly surprising that Madison saw the need for religious liberty.

Christian diversity, and squabbling between denominations, can be seen as a disadvantage. Madison, however, saw competition between sects as a guarantee that one would not try to dominate the others, and deprive them of rights. This has been the American way ever since, and some have attributed the vitality of American religion to the lack of Establishment. Yet there is no doubt that competition, and jealousy, between denominations has weakened their public witness. An opportunity has been given to those who want no place for religion at any official level.

What started as a separation of Church and State (or Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’) has become an attempt to separate religion from society. It is argued that all public recognition of religion is prohibited by the Establishment Clause. A significant step on this path was the agreement by the Supreme Court through the 1940s and 1950s that the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause guaranteed personal liberties in the various states. Furthermore, such liberties were regarded as those defined by the Bill of Rights. The Establishment Clause, originally assumed to be inapplicable to states, came to be seen as a fundamental protection of religious liberty throughout the United States.

In the last fifty years, the Supreme Court has been progressively more rigorous about separating religion from public life. With its power to strike down legislation, the Court has not been afraid to take positions which went against public opinion, the decisions of Congress, and constitutional precedent. A cynic might wonder whether, in the case of religion, the judgements made have as much to do with the personalities and private beliefs of the nine justices as anything else. The appointment of justices to the Supreme Court has become a subject of major political controversy. Many believe that the President’s ability, through careful nomination, to alter the character of the Court is amongst the most significant of his powers.

Recent Comments

  1. One Nation Under God?

    […] Andrew Yoon wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptCoins proclaim ‘In God We Trust’, and the Pledge of Allegiance now refers to one nation ‘under God’. From the beginning of the Republic, there were examples of official religious observance. Presidents proclaimed days of prayer. … […]

  2. Keith

    There are lots of people who believe in a supreme being but do not belong to organised religions because they find the doctrine without provenance and in some cases plain unethical. Religion just doesn’t seem to be about goodness and even Athiests support goodness and morality and ethics.
    We should forget the supernatural which we cannot prove and concentrate on community gatherings where people come together without religion to sing and chant and enjoy socialising and do good for its own sake. Certainly we can benefit from moral lessons in scripture as we can benefit from Aesop’s fables but there was no real dog in a real manger.
    I think that in future politicians are going to be judged by their proven integrity not their unproven claim to belief.

  3. huge

    the treaty of tripoli completely contradicts the above.

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