The New York Times

March 26, 2004


Jefferson, Madison, Newdow?



When Michael Newdow stood before the Supreme Court on Wednesday and made the case for atheism, he probably didn't win many converts. But his quixotic crusade to rid the Pledge of Allegiance of the words "under God" is a peculiarly American act of courage. And somewhere the spirits of Jefferson, Madison and Franklin may well be smiling.

Few questions have inspired as much myth and misconception as the place of God in America. For example, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance last year the decision that is before the Supreme Court now Attorney General John Ashcroft said that God is mentioned "in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, national anthem, on our coins and in the Gettysburg Address."

Well, he was 80 percent right but he was wrong on the most important item. The Constitution is the creation of "we, the people" and never mentions a deity aside from the pro forma phrase "in the year of our Lord." The men who wrote the Constitution labored for months. There's little chance that they simply forgot to mention a higher power. So what were they thinking?

They certainly were from a background in which religion was important. Eighteenth-century America was largely Christian and overwhelmingly Protestant, and the dominant Protestant denominations (Congregationalism in New England, the Anglican Church in the South) even enjoyed state subsidies. Quakers were hanged in the early Colonial era, while Roman Catholics faced discrimination in matters of voting and property. In other words, young America may have been a Christian nation, but it wasn't a very tolerant one.

But the founders were also children of the great intellectual ferment known as the Enlightenment. In the debate over the place of God in public America, few framers are cited more often than Ben Franklin. In the summer of 1787, with the Constitutional Convention haggling over the nation's fate, Franklin proposed opening the day's meetings with a prayer, a proposal often cited by public-prayer advocates. But these advocates leave out the rest of the story.

After Franklin's motion, Alexander Hamilton argued that if people knew that the delegates were resorting to prayer, it would be seen as an act of desperation. Then Hugh Williamson of North Carolina pointed out that the convention lacked the money to pay for a chaplain, and there the proposition died. Franklin later noted, "The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary."

Alongside Franklin's doomed proposal, George Washington's religious fervor is often cited. The father of our country was a regular churchgoer, but what's left out of the story is that he usually left services before Communion. He was a deist who called on Providence, an amorphous power he referred to as "it." Nominally Episcopalian, Washington was also a Freemason, along with many other founders. A semisecret society, Organized Freemasonry was formed in London in 1717 by a group of anticlerical free thinkers dedicated to the ideals of charity, equality, morality and service to the Great Architect of the Universe.

Then there is Jefferson, who inveighed against "every form of tyranny over the mind of man," by which he meant organized religion. In 1786, his Statute for Religious Freedom was approved by the Virginia Legislature through the efforts of James Madison, a chief architect of the Constitution and later an opponent of the practice of paying a Congressional chaplain. This statute guaranteed every Virginian the freedom to worship in the church of his choice and ended state support of the Anglican Church.

But more important than the founders's private faith was the concept that they all embraced passionately: the freedom to practice religion, as well as not to. They had risked their lives to free America from a country with an official religion and a king who claimed a divine right. They believed that government's purpose was to protect people's earthly rights, not their heavenly fates. As for Jefferson, he wrote that it made no difference to him whether his neighbor affirmed one God or 20, since, he added, "It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

It was this concept that the government should neither enforce, encourage or otherwise intrude on religion that found its way into the godless Constitution in the form of the First Amendment. Even the presidential oath of office, which is laid out in the Constitution, does not mention the deity. George Washington ad libbed the "So help me God" at his inaugural ceremony. Every president since has added this personal oath. They choose to say it; the Constitution does not compel it.

The Supreme Court may embrace Dr. Newdow's passionate plea, side with "under God" or split 4-4 and leave the lower court ruling alone, and it won't pick our pockets or break our legs. But the sight of one man standing up to challenge God and country is something that Madison, Jefferson and Franklin would cheer, and every American can celebrate.

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of "Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned."

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