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
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
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."
2004 The New York Times Company