Recently Republican presidential candidate John McCain got some media attention with his assertion that “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” Senator McCain has a peculiar idea of what establishes a nation as Christian. This isn’t a peculiarity unique to John McCain; most if not all of the candidates of both parties, at a minimum, endorse some government establishment of monotheistic religious belief even though the Constitution specifies a godless presidential oath of office and then declares that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
A good example can be found in ABC News “This Week” back in Feb. 18, 2007, which featured George Stephanopoulos interviewing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. George Stephanopoulos promptly asked questions about Romney’s faith, his Mormon faith, and separation of church and state. Romney replied to the separation of church and state question thusly:
Well, we have a separation of church and state in this country, and we should, and it’s served us well. I don’t believe, for instance, we should take “Under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t think we should take “IN GOD WE TRUST” off of our coins. There’s a point at which we take something which is a good principle to an extreme. But I do recognize and support the idea that when you take the oath of office, you basically support something which Abraham Lincoln called America’s political religion. And if I’m lucky enough to be elected president of this country and I take that oath of office, there will be no higher promise than to abide by the Constitution and the rule of law. That’s Abraham Lincoln’s political religion.
George Stephanopoulos’ question quoted John Kennedy. The Kennedy quote excerpt was directed against Catholic and Protestant clergy expressing their opinions about candidates for public office thus confusing the issues of private free expression, tax exemptions for nonpartisan nonprofits, and government establishment of religion. So it is not surprising that Romney avoided talking about Kennedy and switched the focus to Lincoln who is known to have used generic monotheistic language in some of his speeches and writings. Indeed, Lincoln was confronted by a rising tide of public religiosity that historically has sometimes accompanied war and hardship. The National Reform Association (NRA) campaigned to amend Christianity into the Constitution during Lincoln’s presidency. A late 19th century book that tried to promote the NRA’s platform reveals how Lincoln responded to lobbying by some religionists to add monotheism to “that oath of office” recitation.
Christ the King, by Reverend James Mitchell Foster, (published in 1894 by James H. Earle in Boston) makes the following observation about Lincoln’s inaugurations (p. 277):
Every President, after George Washington and before RB Hayes, took the presidential oath without an appeal to God, omitting the very essence of the oath. Rev. A. M. Milligan, D.D., wrote Abraham Lincoln before his inaugural in 1861, and also before his second inaugural in 1865, asking him, in deference to the consciences of the Christian people of the land, to take the presidential oath in the name of God. He replied both times that God’s name was not in the Constitution, and he could not depart from the letter of that instrument.
If Romney intends to follow Lincoln’s lead here then that would be an improvement over more recent practice.
George Washington actually took both of his presidential oaths of office without appending “an appeal to God.” Lincoln was following an unbroken tradition of godless presidential oath of office recitations. But alas, it wouldn’t last. It isn’t clear that Hayes or Garfield appended “an appeal to God” to their oaths of office either, but many newspapers reported that Chester Arthur appended “So help me God.” In a departure from the letter of the Constitution, all presidents from the 1930s have appended “so help me God” to their oath of office recitations. Sometimes the Chief Justice of the United States has added that phrase to the presidential oath despite the lack of any legal authorization to do so. Incredibly, the web site of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has a video which features a Senate Historian falsely claiming that all presidents starting with George Washington appended ‘so help me God’ to the presidential oath office recitations. It wouldn’t be surprising if many Americans incorrectly think all presidents have always appended that phrase because that is what they hear and read in the media and on the internet.
The fact is that the Pledge of Allegiance didn’t exist in 1789 or 1889. The Pledge of Allegiance didn’t appear in U.S. law until 1945. Under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance nine years later in 1954. “IN GOD WE TRUST” first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin. It wasn’t until 1938 that all United States coins bore that inscription and it didn’t appear on paper money until 1957. In God We Trust became our national motto in 1956. The United States prospered without these phrases in any laws for many decades after 1789 and this country would continue to prosper no less in the future if we reverted back to the original laws that avoided these government establishments of monotheism.
When it comes to religious beliefs, extreme is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. People who consider themselves Christians may consider some of the beliefs of the LDS Church “extreme.” For example, the LDS Church declares with complete certainty that “God has a body that looks like yours, though His body is immortal, perfected, and has a glory beyond description.” Even more widely accepted and traditional Christian or Jewish beliefs are probably rather odd and somewhat extreme from the point of view of many Confucians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., and vice versa. Atheists wouldn’t be atheists if we thought atheism was extreme.
If the establishment clause is good enough for some of us then it is good enough for all us. The presidential candidates and the American public would do well to keep this in mind when they contemplate the meaning and applicability of the establishment clause in the 21st century.