Sunday, October 19, 2008

One of the First Things America Did

Another little-known Founding fact about Church and State
by Tom Van Dyke



The very first meeting of the US congress took place in New York on March 4, 1789, but because of various delays in getting George Washington to schlep up from Virginia, his inauguration as president didn't happen until April 30. Washington gave a great speech, and took the oath.



The congress and our new president were finally in place. So what's the first thing the new American state did? Why, it went to church.

The whole bunch, president and congress, packed over to St. Paul's Chapel immediately for a prayer service.

We know from Washington's diary that he continued to attend services most every Sunday at St. Paul's throughout his first year as president, then switched over to the newly rebuilt Trinity Church where they'd constructed a special pew for the President of the United States.

Now it's quite true there's a formal "wall" between "church" and "state" in the federal constitution. No religious tests for federal office, no government church, thank God.

A formal separation between church and state? Certainly. A few want some sort of theocracy today, but they are few, very few. As in the Founding and as it is today, hardly anybody would want to be ruled even by the elders of their own church, let alone anybody else's church. So that's a dead letter.

However, if a nation is more than just the sum of its laws---and a president sitting in a presidential pew loudly suggests the Founders thought there is more to it than just law---then that "wall" didn't mean you couldn't see through it to the other side. In our litigious age, we tend to reduce everything to formalities, the letter of the law. It seems clear that the Founders were far more attuned to the spirit of such things.

There are tons of quotes by the Founders about virtue and morality being necessary for the health of the new American republic, and that religion was a good if not necessary way to foster those virtues. These quotes come even from the least religiously orthodox of the Founders, and here's the point I think gets missed by those who try so hard to prove "key" Founders like Washington were orthodox Christians:

It works even better if they weren't.

The new president and congress, by gathering at St. Paul's for prayer after the inauguration, and by Washington showing his impressive six foot-three self at services every Sunday, by action and deed acknowledged the importance of religion in the public square, not tucked away behind closed doors as a mere matter of private conscience, as many urge we should do today.

Now, it seems recent polls indicate slightly more than half of people today want to "keep religion out of politics." That's fine, but almost half don't. And neither can it be claimed the Founders did, or they would have stayed out of St. Paul's that day, April 30, 1789. Believe it or not, and whether they believed in it or not.


Washington prayed here. Or mebbe he just slept.

23 comments:

Brad Hart said...

An excellent post, Tom. Your argument makes perfect sense.

The founders clearly desired a separation of church and state, however, a separation of religion and politics (or more appropriately put, a separation of morality and society) was not a part of their agenda. I keep thinking of Franklin's "Public Religion" which is a perfect summation of how the founders saw religion operating in the republic. I often think of Franklin's idea of public religion in the following way:

"Let the people worship God as they see fit, and let us nurture this virtue in all faiths, so that morality will abound amongst the masses of the American populace. However, let us also ensure that religion has no seat in the halls of government. Let all decisions of the state be done on a secular basis, without the influence of the priest, minister, etc."

Again, excellent post!

Paul Maurice Martin said...

I agree with Brad. It isn't morality that people want to keep out of office, it's foisting doctrine on others or pretending one's political opinions are God's will.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm confused by your injection of the word "secular" here, Brad. It has several senses, but most imply "worldly," in contradistinction to "spiritual." Thx for the props, but I don't know if you're endorsing the post's argument or attempting to overwrite it. Pls advise.

The confusion doesn't seem to be mine alone, as Mr. Martin chimes against the usual suspects, whom we copiously and summarily already deal with on this blog.

Brad Hart said...

Tom:

When I use the word "secular" I am not trying to insinuate worldliness, ungodliness, etc. Instead I use the word secular to suggest that government decisions should be free from the influence of the Pope, pastor, priest, etc.

Of course there is no way that a leader (or any human being for that matter) could eliminate one's morals, ethics, and beliefs (nor should they be forced to do so). Instead I believe that the founders wanted a secular government to be one in which government representatives were free to make decisions based on the will of the people, not the will of the clergy.

I do, of course, realize that all of my assertions are predicated upon all representatives and citizens living a noble and "virtuous" life. Reality, however, tends to cloud this Utopian yearning.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad Hart writes:

Instead I use the word secular to suggest that government decisions should be free from the influence of the Pope, pastor, priest, etc.

Ah. "Influence," then, becomes a troublesome word. Why "free" of it? Surely if a man---whether a voter or his elected government representative---came to oppose slavery via his own meditations, or from his reading of the Bible, or from hearing a sermon from a priest or minister ["etc."] from a religious or even biblical standpoint, we in the 21st century would say it was all to the good, wouldn't we?

So I'm still at a loss here, Brad. "Secular" begins to mean "that which I agree with," and "doctrine" as Mr. Martin uses it begins to mean "that which I don't agree with."

...that the founders wanted a secular government to be one in which government representatives were free to make decisions based on the will of the people, not the will of the clergy.

The will of the people? If we are all sheep, the will of the people is the same as the will of the clergy. But I don't think either of us are quite cynical enough to believe that.

Because elected government representatives" are always "free" to vote as they wish, desire, or believe. We as a nation set our republic up that way.

Actually, the "Washington slept here" riff was the most novel idea presented here, but if we must again return to Square One, then so be it, first things first. Cheers, Brad. I'm still uncertain whether your purpose was to underwrite or overwrite the original post. The latter is seeming more probable, but thx for the veneer of praise for it anyway. It was based on fact...

Brad Hart said...

Tom:

Are you trying to teach a lesson on semantics? I think we can understand each other without dissecting each and every word...at least...I hope! =)

Tom Van Dyke said...

I wish I could return your smiley, Brad, but using semantic tricks to attempt to undercut a piece I researched for a week accrues no credit to you and brings great disappointment to me on a personal level. No lesson taught here, but one learned. Thank you.

Tim Polack said...

Tom,

I agree, nice post. I think it nicely illustrates what we get tangled over in the first amendment. Unlike many others on this blog, it seems, I think the founders main concern was religious liberty; and allowing it to the max. They had recently fought the battles of making sure that a national church wasn't established, but this was never really possible nor a concern. Within individual states, yes. But not on a national level.

While you may have many people not fully understanding the fine line of the Religious clause of the first amendment and thus thinking they intended to found an explicit Christian nation, I think most of those who take the time to understand the clause realize that it was not possible then and is not possible now, despite the loud voices to the contrary.

So again, I think religious liberty was their main focus, and as you show Tom, the first congress and President show their liberty by attending a service. It is clear they had no issue with showing their shared belief in some form of Christan religion by attending a
christian.

Just the view of a History PhD wannabe.

Thomas Jefferson said...

The Founding Fathers never made a true separation of church and state. There is not one mention of a separation of church and state in the Constitution. That started when Thomas Jefferson said:

"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 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."

People now take that out of context, and think he meant a complete wall of separation. But if there was a true wall of separation, the government would stay our of all religion. And they do not (as seen in the fact that "In God we trust" is our motto.)

Ray Soller said...

Tom wrote, "It seems clear that the Founders were far more attuned to the spirit of such things [than the letter of the law]."

Looking at Washington's first inauguration while ignoring his second inauguration doesn't tell the whole story. The second inaugural ceremony, quite uniquely, did not include any reported reference to the Almighty. And what is just as significant is that Washington, not Congress, laid out his schedule of events for that day.

Even though I haven't looked into the matter, it would be fascinating to discover the next occurrence of when a president chose an official church representative to participate in an inaugural ceremony.

Ray Soller said...

According to a January 14, 2005, FOXNews article: "Inaugural references to God date back to George Washington's inauguration in 1789. Christian prayers within the ceremony began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second inauguration in 1937."

FDR's 1937 inauguration is also the first time the vice-president took his oath of office on the same inaugural platform as the president. Theretofore the vice-president had his oath administered in the Senate chamber, where, of course, the Senate Chaplain starts each day with an invocation so that Congress can follow the "spirit of the law."

Raven said...

"I wish I could return your smiley, Brad, but using semantic tricks to attempt to undercut a piece I researched for a week accrues no credit to you and brings great disappointment to me on a personal level. No lesson taught here, but one learned. Thank you.

Oh quit your whining!

Brad Hart said...

Tom writes:

"Cheers, Brad. I'm still uncertain whether your purpose was to underwrite or overwrite the original post. The latter is seeming more probable, but thx for the veneer of praise for it anyway. It was based on fact...

Tom, you are reading WAY TOO MUCH into my comments. I was actually trying to offer you praise. Did I not say that I agree with your post?

Charles said...

FWIW, I agree that Franklin's use of "secular" is representative of uses that are too vague to be useful as guidelines for "proper" behavior in conducting government business. I consider the way this is currently handled works pretty well: look at legislation once enacted rather than trying to assess the influence of personal beliefs on the legislating process. Only the former is consequential (and is properly handled by courts via constitutional challenges) - which is fortunate since the latter seems inescapable. Of course, this doesn't resolve issues relating to the courts themselves. And I don't know what beyond public disapproval protects us from an executive branch running a pseudo-theocracy by executive order, internal employment practices, etc.

As to the point of the post, if Washington et al attending church is an example of "religion in the public square", I'd say claims of attack on that concept are a red herring. I don't believe I've ever heard anyone argue that political figures shouldn't attend church. I would even claim that requiring religious belief to be "tucked away behind closed doors" is an extreme view that should be given no more attention than the views of the most extreme religious fanatics. As far as I'm aware, even the most vocal and militant atheists typically don't argue against the Free Exercise clause. Which is why I consider that "public square" complaints typically obscure the distinction between permissible personal expression of support for either religion in general or specific religious beliefs, and arguably unconstitutional use of government power to promote either.

- Charles

Tom Van Dyke said...

If raven will permit me to speak---Charles, I think the Pew poll doesn't "obscure" or is a "red herring." "Religion out of politics" is a strong popular sentiment.

Further, the quote is a Brad Hart quote, not Franklin's, I believe, and adds sentiments that are neither Franklin's nor the original post's. And I think the slavery example argues against the quote on its own terms. Why should religious sentiment be regarded as "out of bounds"?

The significance of the president's and congress' church attendance, of course, is that it was not done on a private basis, as some might want to dismiss it as. Even Washington sitting in the "presidential pew" at Trinity is quasi-official.

Which, Ray, is why I did the followup from Washington's diary. As for the second inaugration, memory sez Washington made it a very small affair, his speech running only 150 words.

You're correct about the prayer/benediction that starts out Senate proceedings, another argument to be examined.

You and Brad touch on an interesting point, the phenomenon that church officials are conspicuously absent in the Founding. It's no secret that "key" Founders despised clergy, especially the most powerful ones. Power is power, and we return to the anti-sectarianism that Tim Polack notes, and coupled with the fact there were so many sects in America, one sect gaining control was not a strong possibility, but one zealously guarded against anyway just to make sure.

If Brad's argument is that priests and ministers shouldn't serve as public officials, I tend to agree. However, that's very far afield from the original post.

Charles said...

re the "Franklin" quote, that's what I though at first, but wasn't sure. In either case, my point is the same.

As to the Pew poll, it's irrelevant to my comment which addressed the phrase "religion in the public square", which seems to be used mainly by the better informed, not the general public. As one would expect, the more popular phrase "keep religion out of politics" is essentially meaningless (IMO).

- Charles

Brian Tubbs said...

Tom, just wanted to say....great post!!!!

Tom Van Dyke said...

As one would expect, the more popular phrase "keep religion out of politics" is essentially meaningless (IMO).

Hmmm. Perhaps. It certainly does seem to get a lot of play around here. And elsewhere these days.

Brian, thx, of course. All I can say is I run across these "little-known facts" while looking other stuff up. When I started corresponding with JRowe some years back, I was reasonably under the impression that the Founders were "deists," and even when I was invited to join this blog, I would have viewed this prayer service as just so much "ceremonial deism," as they like to call it today.

As I've got deeper into the Founders' heads in the past few months by reading their musings and finding an astoundingly deep belief in divine providence, I've begun to change that view. To kick off a new nation---that won its war for independence only through the obvious intercession of that Providence [that's how they saw it]---would have been unthinkable without giving thanks and asking for further blessings.

Washington says just this in his inaugural address:

"...it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe...that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes...In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency..."

Etc.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

I think a big question remains is on traditional biblical grounds, was America truly in the right. Personally if God exists I'd like to think that He is a Liberty loving Whig; however reading the Bible and the history of traditional Christianity over 2000 years doesn't convince me that He is.

Perhaps one little piece of evidence in favor of such notion is that America won.

Matt Huisman said...

Jon,

If you're looking for a libertarian God, then one who gives men free will and dominion over the earth seems like a pretty good start in that direction.

As for 'America [being] truly in the right' on biblical grounds, I don't see that as an absolute requirement for the involvement of the hand of Providence (or for us to be able to claim that a particular movement has a Christian foundation). We've done the whole Romans 13 thing before, but is there any value in remembering that xx Spoiler Alert xx the new order established by God doesn't come until the end of the book?

This implies that until that day, it's up to us to do our best, seeking God's help in the process. Romans 13 has it's place, but it is incapable of being the coherent whole of Christian political involvement.

Phil Johnson said...

.
sigh.....

Shanna Riley said...

Absolutely excellent post, Tom. There is no doubt - in reading their words & works - that our founding fathers believed religion had its rightful place in society; even so far as to say it was "necessary" in promulgating values inherent in a peaceful, stable society.

In the whole were they/weren't they spectrum, we all - at times - tend to lose sight of the fact that not a one of our f.f. can be placed in such a neat little package. They were living, breathing humans like the rest of us and were entirely too multi-faceted to truly be tied down to any such simple declaration.

It's a gentle reminder that all of us in this age-long, word-fought battle are good to be reminded of.

Phil Johnson said...

Just in case you thought it was safe to go in the water:
http://www.rightwingwatch.org/category/individuals/david-barton