THE UNITED STATES SENATE-GOD IN AMERICAN HISTORY
PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 97TH CONGRESS, FIRST SESSION
WASHINGTON, MONDAY, APRIL 27, 1981
Mr. President, if one looks carefully at the face of a penny, he will read there the words, “In God We Trust."
In 1956, those words officially and legally became our National Motto. By Congressional mandate, that motto appears on all our coins and currency. Over the years, some critics have attacked the motto. They have also attacked the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. In a broader vein, certain scholars have maintained that the Founding Fathers were essentially a religious—even anti-religious—men, bent on establishing a completely secular state in which God would have no place. These individuals assert that American history is basically atheistic, humanistic, and deterministic.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Religion and faith in God have been foundational elements of American history. Not incidentally, the Senate, in its long history, has acknowledged this reality, and has contributed significantly to the positive growth of sincere and socially-responsible religious expressions.
Indeed, the Senate, since 1789, has regularly required the services of an ordained clergyman. The Senate Chaplain is the embodiment of a corporate faith in God and the symbol of the effective eternal judgment that Senators have recognized over their legislative and personal actions. Moreover, the institution of the Senate Chaplaincy is itself the result of an interesting historical process that reveals much about the long development of Senate values.
The first prayers offered in Congress were uttered on September 7,1774. At the initial meeting of the First Continental Congress, Samuel Adams requested that the convention begin with prayer. As the Revolutionary War continued, the Continental Congress issued calls for periodic national days of prayer and fasting, asking the populace "to reverence the Providence of God, and look up to Him as the Supreme Disposer of all events and the arbiter of the fate of nations.”
In 1777, again at the urging of Samuel Adams and following the American victory over General Burgoyne at Saratoga, the first national Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed. The proclamation, signed by Henry Laurens, President of the Congress, declared, "Forasmuch as it is the indispensible duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him, etc. * * * and went on to designate December 18 the day of Thanksgiving. Throughout the Colonies, preaching and feasting events were held, and everywhere the American troops observed the day reverently.
These calls for national religious observances were not mere pious gestures to impress the unsophisticated. Prayer and worship were held to high regard by the substantial men who led the Revolution. The Senate Chaplaincy was, therefore, a consistent step in the evolution of the Senate. The modern Senate Chaplain's position grew directly out of a proposal made by Benjamin Franklin during the rocky sessions of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The various representatives of the several states were locked in heated disagreements over petty regional prerogatives, many promoting selfish and narrow ends with little concern for the national well-being. For a time, it looked as if the new nation, born of the victory over the Hanoversian Dynasty, was going to break apart from a lack of compromise and vision on domestic issues.
At a crucial moment, the elderly and world-renowned Franklin rose and addressed the Convention. He declared:
Mr. President: The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance and continual reasonings with each other . . . Is methlnks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. . . .
In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illumine our understanding? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered . . .
. . . And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His Notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?
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 we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy in this city be requested to officiate in that service.
Franklin's request established a tradition that has never lapsed. Among the first officers elected in the Senate after the adoption of the Constitution was the chaplain; and to this day, the first daily order of business in the Senate is a prayer for Divine Guidance by the chaplain.
Once during the past decade, Senate Rule IV, paragraph 2, was invoked when the Senate, being in continuous session from its convening on Friday, October 13, 1978, suspended its deliberations at twelve noon on Friday, October 14, 1978, for prayer by the Chaplain.
Under the policy of the Senate, two guest chaplains may be invited in any one month to offer the opening prayer. Each guest chaplain is honored by a handsome certificate signed by the Vice President, the Secretary of the Senate, and the Chaplain.
A long tradition of exclusively male chaplains was broken when the Rev. Dr. Wilmina Rowland of Philadelphia, a Presbyterian clergywoman led us in the opening prayer on July 8, 1971. Later, and for the first time in history, a Roman Catholic Nun, Sister Joan Keleher Doyle, of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, offered the prayer on July 17, 1974.
Another legacy of faith bequeathed by the Founding Fathers and fostered by Congress is little understood and sometimes distorted in the modern age. In 1791, Congress passed the first ten amendments to the Constitution, called the Bill of Rights. The very first amendment recognized the importance of religion in American life, stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The purpose of this tenet was to allow religious faith to flourish, not to suppress or hobble it. Even before the passage of the first amendment, Congress had clarified its attitude toward religion when, on August 7, 1789, it officially reenacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which included an explicit endorsement of religion. Article III of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stated, "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of learning shall forever be encouraged." At that juncture, most schools were church enterprises, often sectarian in nature. Congress recognized this, and expected that the schools would teach religion and morality. Under this article, the government was mandated to help these sectarian institutions and did so, usually with grants of federal land. This practice was completely consistent with the evolving doctrine of separation of Church and State, because such grants and other assistance to churches were nondiscriminatory aid to religion in general, and in no way constituted an effort to establish one denomination as a national religion to the exclusion of other religious groups. Both the old Confederation Congress and the Senate and House of Representatives under the new Constitution viewed responsible religion as a social asset and sought to advance it.
Against this background, the First Amendment is especially interesting. James Madison, the principal sponsor of the Bill of Rights and later himself President, was a lifelong Episcopalian and had studied theology at Princeton with plans apparently to enter the ministry. On his return to Virginia after college, however, he was deeply disturbed by the persecution of Baptists and other nonconformists in the Old Dominion, which had an established religion, and he entered politics as an ardent advocate of religious tolerance.
Madison called Christianity a "precious gift" to humanity, but declared that, "The religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man." Thus, in consultation with John Leland, the leading Baptist clergyman in Virginia, Madison hammered out the church/state principles that were eventually embodied in the First Amendment. As a result, the institutions of the State and Church were officially separated but the exercise of religion and its influence on society were encouraged.
The wisdom of Congress in this position has been confirmed again and again. Throughout American history, churches have fostered patriotism, civic responsibility, and social justice, while generally avoiding the often debilitatingly narrow partisanship that has sometimes afflicted churches in Europe, causing them to become identified with often discredited political parties and movements, to the detriment of the churches. Quite the contrary, in America, churches have enjoyed continuing growth, prosperity, and general favor.
Over the generations, the Senate has enjoyed the fruits of this enlightened attitude toward religion with the other elements of our national equation. And it is not only in the modern era that the unique position of religion in national life has been recognized. Alexis De Tocqueville, the celebrated French political observer of the nineteenth century, remarked on the condition of religion in the United States in the 1830's. He wrote:
On my, arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention ... In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom, marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.
De Tocqueville grasped what millions of Americans have known, past and present: God has been and continues to be an intimate and profound participant in the ongoing history of America. Through the decades, most Americans have come to discover the truth of De Tocqueville's conclusion when he asserted, "Unbelief is an accident, and faith is the only permanent state of mankind."
Indeed, from its inception, America has been gripped by a sense of Divine Purpose. The Mayflower Compact of 1620 begins with the invocation "In the name of God, Amen," and proceeds to bind the signers to a civil covenant for "The gloire (sic) of God, and advancements of the Christian faith." But the less-familiar First Charter of Virginia, granted in 1606 by King James I, also outlines as one of the principal reasons for the founding of the Virginia colony the spread of religious faith.
The desire for religious freedom directly underlay the establishment of several New England colonies, as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland, and contributed significantly to the settlement of all the Original Thirteen Colonies. Millions of early colonists and later immigrants—Dissenters, Catholics, Quakers, Mennonites, Jews, Moravians, Huguenots, Orthodox, and Lutherans—came to these shores primarily to worship God and live as their consciences dictated, and not as an oppressive state demanded.
In time, the need to provide for the education of their clergy became of paramount importance to the early religious colonists. From this impulse, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and William and Mary colleges emerged. Later, religious motivations gave birth to Columbia, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, Emory, Davidson, the University of California, Duke, and scores of other great colleges and universities across this continent.
On the frontier, “circuit riders,” apparently first launched by Methodist bishop Francis Asbury, rode into the deepest recesses of the wilderness to spread their faith. These pioneers usually served a civilizing and educating function as well, for they customarily carried with them the first books, pamphlets, and treaties seen in the earliest English-speaking outposts in the interior. The circuit riders became primitive conduits of communication, feeding the sense of national unity and stirring the hunger for knowledge and information, as well as nurturing the first sparks of culture and civility in a wild and sometimes desperate society.
In both the case of the colleges and frontier missionary work, education, under the aegis of sincere religious understanding and fervor, irreversibly shaped the character, values, and vision of the people of this country. Indeed the force of the Calvinist tradition in America, most strongly expressed through the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregationalist communions, persuaded many Americans to revere this nation as a new Promised Land, perceived in an Old Testament framework.
The values cultivated by the earliest religious communities eventually set national standards and contributed significantly to the prosperity and international preeminence that America achieved. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, "The Ten Commandments will not budge." The members of the various religious communities knew this and nurtured their sons and daughters in this understanding. In spite of primeval conditions, frontier violence, border warfare, drunkenness, outlawry, and ignorance, gradually the eternal yardsticks of the Judeo-Christian tradition became the instruments by which the morality and laws of the land were measured. The spiritual ancestors of this nation believed in elementary virtues such as sobriety, chastity, and thrift. They viewed work not as a necessary drudgery but as an ennobling activity. They valued honesty and demanded, even of themselves, a day's work for a day's wages. Corollary qualities—precision, utility, and durability—were forged into-the products they manufactured. In time, the world was knocking at America's door, wanting to buy its superior goods and services.
But one of the most significant contributions of religious faith to American history appears to have been the American Revolution itself. In spite of the pervasive rationalism of their age, the overwhelming majority of the Founding Fathers were steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Locke, Rousseau, and Montaigne may have whetted the appetite for liberty, but the God of the Founding Fathers was not the retired and complacent Universal Watchmaker of the Deists and the French philosophes; He was a Provident and Just Magistrate—among other roles—and He was indignant at the usurpations of the British Crown. When Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, every colonel in command of the Continental troops, save one, was an elder of the Presbyterian Church. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was the Reverend Doctor John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and nine of his former students also affixed their signatures to that national "confession of faith."
In the context of the faith of the Founding Fathers, it is not surprising that the nation that evolved out of the Revolution should be, at root, religious. Nor is it incongruous that the Chief Executive of the government of that nation should evince a sacral aura. And indeed, most of the men who have been President of the United States have been committed Christians. In some cases, the men in question were religious throughout their lives; in others, religious commitment appears to have been spurred by the burdens of the office. Two Presidents beside James Madison—John Adams and Benjamin Harrison—had considered entering the ministry. James Garfield was a lay preacher in the Disciples church. And Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and James Earl Carter were Sunday School teachers at some time in their lives.
But seven Presidents—Jackson, Polk, Pierce, Buchanan, Grant, Coolidge, and Eisenhower—formally joined churches only after being elevated to the Presidency.
Of all the Presidents, Abraham Lincoln is recognized as being the most theologically astute and Biblically influenced. He also uttered the most profound and devout religious statements in his speeches and published papers. Paradoxically, Lincoln never formally joined any church, though he attended services frequently and sought the counsel of religious leaders.
Moreover, Lincoln seems to have interpreted his presidency from the total perspective of faith, remarking:
I have desired that all my works and acts be according to His will, and that it might be so, I have sought His aid—but if, alter endeavoring to do my best in the light which He affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purposes unknown to me, He wills it otherwise.
Of the Bible, Lincoln said, "It is the best gift God has given to man." Indeed, Lincoln was an avid Bible reader. From the days of his rustic, backwoods boyhood, when the Bible was one of his reading textbooks, he had immersed himself in the Scriptures, and kept a battered old family Bible with him in the White House. His speeches were laced with Biblical quotations, and his delivery reflected the cadences and rhythms of the King James Version of the English Bible.
Because of the pivotal role Lincoln played in American history, subsequent to his assassination he earned a degree of reverence usually reserved only for canonized saints. His passion to correct injustice and hold the Union together obtained for him the designations of "Great Emancipator" and "Great Reconciler." Leo Tolstoy, the monumental Russian author of the nineteenth century, was so impressed with Lincoln that he described him as "a Christ in miniature."
But Lincoln is not alone among the residents in making a public witness of his personal faith. Every President, from George Washington through Ronald Reagan, has included some reference to the Deity in his inaugural address. Taken together, the corpus of inaugural addresses confirms the sense of Divine Purpose that runs through American history.
In his First Inaugural, Washington declared, "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." Washington instituted a custom followed by every President since when he proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day in late November of 1789. He also planted the idea that eventually led to the construction of the National Cathedral, when he expressed the dream of erecting "a great Church" in the capital city that came to bear his name.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the most religiously controversial of our Presidents. Jefferson was a rationalist, as were many of the leading intellectuals of his era; technically, he was a "deist," or a man who believed in God, but not particularly in the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith.
Though his rationalism confused many conventional believers, Jefferson was clear concerning his own beliefs. He stated, "I am a Christian attached to the doctrines of Jesus." Officially, Jefferson was an Anglican (Episcopalian), and regularly attended Episcopalian services near Capitol Hill during his presidency. He was also a probing Bible scholar, and had a sophisticated comprehension of theology. Indeed, specifically included in his plans for the University of Virginia was the proposal that "proof of the being of God, the Creator, Preserver, and Supreme Ruler of the Universe, the Author of all morality, and the laws and obligations which these infer, will be the province of the professor of ethics."
Nowhere, perhaps, did Jefferson's religious faith have a greater influence than in the words of the Declaration of Independence. At one point, Jefferson wrote, "Religion is the alpha and omega of our moral law." In the Declaration, which he authored, Jefferson made clear that religion was also the root of our political rights. The Declaration of Independence contains five synonyms for the word "God," and maintains that freedom itself is a gift from God as an element of man's creaturehood.
Another religiously-interesting President was Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a rough-hewn man, quick of temper and decisive of action. As a military hero and a champion from the Western frontier, he is not usually thought of in religious terms.
But Jackson's wife Rachel and his parents were devout Presbyterians. These influences" apparently had a profound effect on Jackson, for, during his presidency he regularly attended church, and he confessed that for thirty-five years prior to his election as President, he had faithfully read at least three chapters of the Bible daily. Concerning the Bible, Jackson wrote to a relative, "Go read the Scriptures. The joyful promises it contains will be a balsome (sic) to all your troubles."
In his Second Inaugural Address, Jackson revealed his own interpretation of the role of God in national life and in his own public actions, when he declared,
. . . Finally, it is my fervent prayer to that Almighty Being before whom I now stand, and who has kept us in His hands from the infancy of our Republic to the present day, that He will so overrule all my intentions and actions and inspire the hearts of my fellow-citizens that we may be preserved from dangers of all kinds and continue forever a united and happy people.
He was no less explicit in the personal sentiments he included in his will:
First, I bequeath my body to the dust from whence it came and my soul to God, who gave it, hoping for a happy immortality through the atoning merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.
President Jackson did not join the church until his retirement from the Presidency, but he died a Presbyterian in good standing, following the traditions of his family.
In addition to the emphatic expressions of faith already noted in national documents and charters, the constitutions of all fifty states declare a dependence on Almighty God for their existence, preservation, and strength. More than polite invocations, the preambles of these constitutions set the rationale for all that follows them, for the standards of justice, civil law, and official and individual conduct outlined in each are based on religious presuppositions. Composed and ratified, over long decades and in a variety of socio-economic, historical, and geographic settings, the state constitutions bear witness to the universality and endurance of the conviction that the United States is "a nation under God."
Among the primary sources of knowledge concerning such civilizations as Ancient Egypt, Assyria, or Persia are the great public buildings and monuments erected at the pinnacles of their respective power and prosperity. Archaeologists in future millenia will have little difficulty reading the evidence of America's greatness, for successive generations of Americans have also embodied their national pride and values in appropriate public buildings. Unsurprising is the fact that the indelible traces of America's religious faith will also be found in many of these same buildings.
For example, above and behind the Speaker's rostrum in the chamber of the House of Representatives, one reads in golden letters the motto "In God We Trust." Carved into the mantlepiece of the State Dining Room in the White House is a prayer composed by John Adams, the first President to occupy the Executive Mansion, which reads,
I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this White House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise men ever rule under this roof.
Inscribed on the walls of the Library of Congress are such verses of Scripture as the following:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His handywork (Psalm 19:1).
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding (Proverbs 4:7).
What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God (Micah 6:8).
In like fashion, the inside walls of the Washington Monument and Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials bear engraved words of faith. Most touching of all, perhaps, is the inscription borne on the face of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery:
HERE RESTS IN HONORED
GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER
KNOWN ONLY TO GOD
Inscribed on the walls of our own Senate Chamber are the words Novus Ordo Seclorum (A New Order Of The Ages); Annuit Coeptis (He Hath Favored Our Undertakings); and In God We Trust.
Among the cynical, uninformed, and callow these evidences of national faith and conviction too often are dismissed as irrelevant platitudes or pious nonsense. But the American perception that this is “a nation under God” has had a genuine influence on determining the quality of life in the United States. Certainly, this nation has in the course of its history, made mistakes, and has, from time to time, strayed from its own best lights. But religious faith and commitment have served as never-failing leaven in America’s community life, creating conscience and impelling national leaders and the people alike toward higher ideals and standards in the process, individuals and society in the United States have realized standards of living and decency unknown before in human history.
For instance, prior to the American Revolution, the poor and indebted could be forced into bonded servitude, slaves were sold like cattle, the mentally-ill were thrown into prisons, only the well-to-do could read or write, propertied males alone had political rights, religious nonconformists were publicly whipped and pilloried, legal justice could sometimes be found only for a price, laborers had no rights, children regularly did back-breaking work in mines and artisans' shops, disease was rampant, and sanitation was almost unknown beyond the most meager and sometimes questionable habits of personal grooming and hygiene.
But because so many Americans have believed that men are created in the image of the Divine, there has been a continuing urgency to prove that the philosopher Hobbes was not speaking definitively when he declared that human life was, in the main, "mean, brutish, and nasty." The thrust of American history has been toward reverence for individual rights, fulfillment of human aspiration, and the realization of the eternal dream of justice under law.
The religious vision of human worth has increasingly shaped America's national institutions. The purposes behind the educational system, legal processes, health care program, and community development rest on religious foundations. Faith in America has found concrete expression in progress toward human betterment and legal justice.
But America is an ever-perfecting, never-completed society. Because mankind has freedom, and choices can be made for either good or evil, the function of religious faith and dedication is never rendered outmoded or irrelevant. God has an eternal role to play in the continued unfolding of American history. As a result, faith in God is as relevant today as it was when Benjamin Franklin implored the Constitutional Convention to seek Divine Guidance to its daily deliberations.
In establishing and maintaining a secular government, the American people never intended to foster an atheistic or anti-spiritual society. Senators can take justifiable pride in the spiritual heritage and traditions that extend back through Senatorial history to the early days of the Republic. Indeed, throughout the Senate's history, in times of national crisis and during weeks of routine deliberation, the prayers offered in the Senate have been graciously answered. Divine Guidance has been extended and Providential Wisdom has been shared, for the Senate has again and again acted with more than mere human perception.
In this light, the motto inscribed on America's pennies, dimes, or dollars is a realistic declaration. And perhaps more sincere than ever is the prayer that climaxes one of our greatest national hymns:
Our fathers' God, to Thee,
Author of liberty, To
Thee we sing:
Long may our land be bright
With, freedom's holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King.