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The Conservative Curmudgeon
August 4, 2009

Atheists Misread the Role of Religion in American Society
by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — Early in July, both the House and Senate passed resolutions directing the Architect of the Capitol to engrave the words “In God We Trust” and the Pledge of Allegiance at the new Capitol Visitor Center. Shortly thereafter, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics, filed a lawsuit claiming that taxpayer-funded engravings would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

The Madison, Wisconsin-based, Freedom from Religion Foundation is one of many groups that have sought to excise God from our public discourse and our lives. Those who have embarked on such a crusade often speak as if they were embracing the philosophy of the Founding Fathers with respect to the separation of church and state. This, however, is at variance with the historical record.

The fact is that the United States was founded on the concept that our rights, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, come from our “Creator.” The intent of the First Amendment was to make government neutral among religious sects, rather than neutral between religion and non-religion.

What the First Amendment was really saying has been all but forgotten. Judge Thomas Cooley, a leading constitutional scholar of the l9th century, put it this way in his Principles of Constitutional Law:

“By establishment of religion is meant the setting up or recognizing of a state church, or at least the conferring upon one church of special favors and advantages which are denied to others. It was never intended by the Constitution that the government should be prohibited from recognizing religion, or that religious worship should never be provided for in cases where a proper recognition of Divine Providence in the workings of government might seem to require it, and where it might be done without drawing invidious distinctions between different religious beliefs, organizations or sects. The Christian religion was always recognized in the administration of the common law; and so far as that law continues to be the law of the land, the fundamental principles of that religion must continue to be recognized in the same cases and the same extent as formerly.”

The intent of the First Amendment, states Professor Charles Rice in his book, The Supreme Court and Public Prayer, was to make government neutral among religious sects. He writes: “... the public life of the American states was based upon the unapologetic conviction that there is a God who exercises a benevolent providence over the affairs of men. This is not to say that all Americans then recognized God, or that there was agreement on all the details of his attributes. But to those who assert that the First Amendment was designed to prevent the government from recognizing God and praying His aid, it can rightly be said that they will have to find evidence for their claim elsewhere than in the history of the period prior to l787.”

Reference to God has been present in our public life from the beginning. The Declaration of Independence acknowledges God in four separate places. The Framers of that instrument announced that the colonies were assuming “the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them.” The Declaration states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those who signed the Declaration proclaimed: “And for the support of this Declaration, with the firm reliance in the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The Continental Congress opened its sessions, beginning in l774, with prayer delivered by a clergyman. In l776, Congress authorized and appointed regular chaplains. In l778, Congress provided an annual salary for chaplains. In l787, Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance for the governance of the Northwest Territory. Article 3 proclaimed: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education shall ever be encouraged.”

The overwhelming majority of Americans — more than 90 percent — consists of believers. They attend church and synagogue and mosque with greater regularity than people in any other Western country. Many of the “elites” who dominate so much public discourse, however, are decidedly secular, if not hostile, to religion.

Indeed, sociologist Peter Berger of Boston University notes that India is the most intensely religious country in the world and Sweden is the least. He declares that America “is a nation of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes.”

In his book, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, Yale law professor Stephen Carter argues that over the past 30 years religious devotion has been mistakenly trivialized in public life. And because the U.S. was founded on the concept that our very liberties come from God, the official banning of God removes the foundation on which we base our belief in other people’s rights.

Those extreme sectarians who want to impose their own form of religion on the American society must be resisted. The imposition of an extreme version of secularism is in itself a form of religious “establishment.” The Framers of the Constitution would be opposed to either imposition, as any reading of the historical record clearly shows. Despite the wishes of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is the perfect spot to have “In God We Trust” engraved.

A shorter version of this column is available for publication purposes. Contact fgf@fgfBooks.com.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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