The Founders and Public Religious Expressions

Recently, there have been objections to public religious expressions by legislative chaplains supported through State budgets. These objections to legislative chaplains are very similar to one lodged with the U. S. Congress in 1852. In that challenge, the Committees on the Judiciary in both the House and the Senate each delivered a report pertinent to this discussion.
For example, in the House Report on March 27, 1854, it noted:
There certainly can be no doubt as to the practice of employing chaplains in deliberative bodies previous to the adoption of the Constitution. We are, then, prepared to see if any change was made in that respect in the new order of affairs. . . . On the 1st day of May [1789], Washington’s first speech was read to the House, and the first business after that speech was the appointment of Dr. Linn as chaplain. By whom was this plan made? Three out of six of that joint committee were members of the Convention that framed the Constitution. Madison, Ellsworth, and Sherman passed directly from the hall of the [Constitutional] Convention to the hall of Congress. Did they not know what was constitutional? . . . It seems to us that the men who would raise the cry of danger in this state of things would cry fire on the 39th day of a general deluge. . . . But we beg leave to rescue ourselves from the imputation of asserting that religion is not needed to the safety of civil society. It must be considered as the foundation on which the whole structure rests. Laws will not have permanence or power without the sanction of religious sentiment—without a firm belief that there is a Power above us that will reward our virtues and punish our vices. [1]
The House Judiciary Committee therefore concluded:
Whereas, the people of these United States, from their earliest history to the present time, have been led by the hand of a kind Providence and are indebted for the countless blessings of the past and present, and dependent for continued prosperity in the future upon Almighty God; and whereas the great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it eminently becomes the representatives of a people so highly favored to acknowledge in the most public manner their reverence for God: therefore, Resolved, That the daily sessions of this body be opened with prayer and that the ministers of the Gospel in this city are hereby requested to attend and alternately perform this solemn duty. [2]
On January 19, 1853, the Senate Judiciary Committee delivered its report:
The whole view of the petitioners seems founded upon mistaken conceptions of the meaning of the Constitution. . . . If [the use of chaplains] had been a violation of the Constitution, why was not its character seen by the great and good men who were coeval with the government, who were in Congress and in the Presidency when this constitutional amendment was adopted? They, if any one did, understood the true purport of the amendment, and were bound, by their duty and their oath, to resist the introduction or continuance of chaplains, if the views of the petitioners were correct. But they did no such thing; and therefore we have the strongest reason to suppose the notion of the petitioner to be unfounded. . . . They had no fear or jealousy of religion itself, nor did they wish to see us an irreligious people; they did not intend to prohibit a just expression of religious devotion by the legislators of the nation, even in their public character as legislators; they did not intend to spread over all the public authorities and the whole public action of the nation the dead and revolting spectacle of atheistical apathy. [3]
Interestingly, a century later, the U. S. Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion, declaring:
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. . . . When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. [4]
Clearly, previous generations did not find difficulty with paid chaplains. In fact, even Thomas Jefferson would disagree in several areas with those who often invoke him as an authority for a secular public arena, for Jefferson himself regularly violated the bland “civil religion” standards which many secularists promote. Consider:
Jefferson urged local governments to make land available specifically for Christian purposes; [5]
In an 1803 federal Indian treaty, Jefferson willingly agreed to provide $300 to “assist the said Kaskaskia tribe in the erection of a church” and to provide “annually for seven years $100 towards the support of a Catholic priest.” He also signed three separate acts setting aside government lands for the sole use of religious groups and setting aside government lands so that Moravian missionaries might be assisted in “promoting Christianity.” [6]
When Washington D. C. became the national capital in 1800, Congress voted that the Capitol building would also serve as a church building. [7] President Jefferson chose to attend church each Sunday at the Capitol [8] and even provided the service with paid government musicians to assist in its worship. [9] Jefferson also began similar Christian services in his own Executive Branch, both at the Treasury Building and at the War Office. [10]
Jefferson praised the use of a local courthouse as a meeting place for Christian services; [11]
Jefferson assured a Christian religious school that it would receive “the patronage of the government”; [12]
Jefferson proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict a story from the Bible and include the word “God” in its motto; [13]
While President, Jefferson closed his presidential documents with the phrase, “In the year of our Lord Christ; by the President; Thomas Jefferson.” [14]
Furthermore, Jefferson would especially disagree with those who believe that public prayers should be non-sectarian and omit specific references to Jesus. Jefferson believed that every individual should pray according to his own beliefs. As Jefferson explained:
[The] liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will [is] a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support. [15] (emphasis added)
Critics, therefore, would be particularly troubled by President Jefferson’s words that:
No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example. [16]
James Madison also encouraged public officials to declare openly and publicly their Christian beliefs and testimony — as when he wrote to William Bradford (who became Attorney General under President George Washington):
I have sometimes thought there could not be a stronger testimony in favor of religion or against temporal enjoyments, even the most rational and manly, than for men who occupy the most honorable and gainful departments and [who] are rising in reputation and wealth, publicly to declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ; and I wish you may give in your evidence in this way. [17]
Additionally, throughout his Presidency, Madison issued several proclamations for public days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving, [18] and like Jefferson, President Madison also attended church at the Capitol, thus publicly endorsing religion in official arenas. [19]
So, not only did Jefferson and Madison endorse religion in the public arena, they were even willing publicly to endorse Christian prayers in the public arena rather than the bland politically-correct civic prayers desired by critics of public prayers.
There are many additional framers of our government who are also qualified to speak to the issue of religious expressions in official and political arenas. For example:
· [W]e can only depend on the all powerful influence of the Spirit of God, whose Divine aid and assistance it becomes us as a Christian people most devoutly to implore. Therefore I move that some minister of the Gospel be requested to attend this Congress every morning during the sessions in order to open the meeting with prayer. [20] Elias Boudinot, President of Congress, A Framer of the Bill of Rights in the First Congress
· We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. . . . I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more clergy of the city be requested to officiate in that service. [21] Benjamin Franklin, Signer of the Constitution, Signer of the Declaration, Governor of Pennsylvania
· Sensible of the importance of Christian piety and virtue to the order and happiness of a state, I cannot but earnestly commend to you every measure for their support and encouragement. . . . [T]he very existence of the republics . . . depend much upon the public institutions of religion. [22] John Hancock, Signer of Declaration of Independence, Governor of Massachusetts
· [It is] the duty of all wise, free, and virtuous governments to countenance and encourage virtue and religion. [23] I therefore recommend a general and public return of praise and thanksgiving to Him from whose goodness these blessings descend. The most effectual means of securing the continuance of our civil and religious liberties is always to remember with reverence and gratitude the source from which they flow. [24] John Jay, Original Chief-Justice U. S. Supreme Court, An Author of the Federalist Papers, Governor of New York
· I had the honor of being one among many who framed that Constitution. . . . In order effectually to accomplish these great ends, it is incumbent upon us to begin wisely and to proceed in the fear of God; . . . and it is especially the duty of those who bear rule to promote and encourage piety [respect for God]. [25] Henry Laurens, President of Congress, Selected as Delegate to the Constitutional Convention
· [A] free government. . . . can only be happy when the public principle and opinions are properly directed. . . . by religion and education. It should therefore be among the first objects of those who wish well to the national prosperity to encourage and support the principles of religion and morality. [26] Abraham Baldwin, Signer of the Constitution, A Framer of the Bill of Rights in the First Congress
· Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness. [27] (emphasis added) George Washington, Signer of the Constitution, First U. S. President
·[W]hatsoever State among us shall continue to make piety [respect for God] and virtue the standard of public honor will enjoy the greatest inward peace, the greatest national happiness, and in every outward conflict will discover the greatest constitutional strength. [28] John Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration of Independence
There are many additional framers of our documents with similarly pertinent declarations—some more strongly worded, some less strongly worded, and some the equivalent of those above.
However, just because so many framers specifically endorsed Christianity did not mean that they excluded other religious faiths, for such was not the case. In fact, evangelical Christian Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration and a member of the presidential administrations of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison), in discussing educational policies in public schools, declared:
Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohamed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament. . . . [A]ll its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well-being of civil government. [29]
However, while Dr. Rush was outspoken about his personal Christian preferences, he was also gratified with the religious tolerance exercised in America. In fact, in his description of the federal parade in Philadelphia following the adoption of the Constitution, Rush happily declared:
The rabbi of the Jews locked in the arms of two ministers of the Gospel was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem! [30]
And as Constitution signer Richard Dobbs Spaight similarly explained:
As to the subject of religion. . . . no power is given to the general government to interfere with it at all. . . . No sect is preferred to another. Every man has a right to worship the Supreme Being in the manner he thinks proper. [31]
The “every man” protections mentioned not only by Jefferson and Spaight but by so many other framers would include protections for those chaplains who wish to offer prayers in whatever manner they may choose.
The historical evidence is clear: those who oppose legislative chaplaincies (paid or unpaid), or who decry sectarian public prayers, lack any broad historical basis for their arguments. Such opposition certainly cannot be justified in the name the Founding Fathers.
reprinted from WallBuilders – 2000