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More Church/State Distortions from the Worldnetdaily

The Worldnetdaily is furiously promoting an event called Washington: A Man of Prayer, to be held at the U.S. Capitol building on May 7, printing one article after another about it. It’s hosted by Michele Bachmann, Louis Gohmert and others. Unsurprisingly, the Worldnetdaily is copying a bunch of lies and distortions from David Barton.

Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both attended non-denominational Christian worship services inside the very chamber where Congress met from 1807 to 1857, now called Statuary Hall.

Gohmert told WND, it is a long-forgotten fact of history that shows just how far the modern interpretation of the separation of church and state has strayed from the original intent of the founders.

Not only were church services held within the House on Sundays, but, for generations, the Capitol was transformed weekly into the largest church on the East Coast.

As Chris Rodda has pointed out in great detail, virtually everything we know about these “church services” comes from Margaret Bayard Smith, the wife of a newspaper editor in Washington, DC. And here is how she described these “church services.”

“…I have called these Sunday assemblies in the capitol, a congregation, but the almost exclusive appropriation of that word to religious assemblies, prevents its being a descriptive term as applied in the present case, since the gay company who thronged the H. R. looked very little like a religious assembly. The occasion presented for display was not only a novel, but a favourable one for the youth, beauty and fashion of the city, Georgetown and environs. The members of Congress, gladly gave up their seats for such fair auditors, and either lounged in the lobbies, or round the fire places, or stood beside the ladies of their acquaintance. This sabbathday-resort became so fashionable, that the floor of the house offered insufficient space, the platform behind the Speaker’s chair, and every spot where a chair could be wedged in was crowded with ladies in their gayest costume and their attendant beaux and who led them to their seats with the same gallantry as is exhibited in a ball room. Smiles, nods, whispers, nay sometimes tittering marked their recognition of each other, and beguiled the tedium of the service. Often, when cold, a lady would leave her seat and led by her attending beau would make her way through the crowd to one of the fire-places where she could laugh and talk at her ease. One of the officers of the house, followed by his attendant with a great bag over his shoulder, precisely at 12 o’clock, would make his way through the hall to the depository of letters to put them in the mail-bag, which sometimes had a most ludicrous effect, and always diverted attention from the preacher. The musick was as little in union with devotional feelings, as the place. The marine-band, were the performers. Their scarlet uniform, their various instruments, made quite a dazzling appearance in the gallery. The marches they played were good and inspiring, but in their attempts to accompany the psalm-singing of the congregation, they completely failed and after a while, the practice was discontinued, — it was too ridiculous.”

And another description from Augustus Foster, a British diplomat who sometimes attended them:

“In going to assemblies one had sometimes to drive three or four miles within the city bounds, and very often at the great risk of an overthrow, or of being what is termed ‘stalled,’ or stuck in the mud. …. Cards were a great resource during the evening, and gaming was all the fashion, at brag especially, for the men who frequented society were chiefly from Virginia or the Western States, and were very fond of this the worst gambling of all games, as being one of countenance as well as of cards. Loo was the innocent diversion of the ladies, who when they looed pronounced the word in a very mincing manner….”

“Church service can certainly never be called an amusement; but from the variety of persons who are allowed to preach in the House of Representatives, there was doubtless some alloy of curiosity in the motives which led one to go there. Though the regular Chaplain was a Presbyterian, sometimes a Methodist, a minister of the Church of England, or a Quaker, or sometimes even a woman took the speaker’s chair; and I don’t think that there was much devotion among the majority. The New Englanders, generally speaking, are very religious; though there are many exceptions, I cannot say so much for the Marylanders, and still less for the Virginians.”

In other words, it was little more than a social gathering with occasional speakers from a variety of backgrounds. Not exactly a sacred event.

Gohmert helped bring some of America’s forgotten sacred history to light when he asked the Congressional Research Service to do an objective, non-partisan review to learn if the things he had read and learned about prayer in the Capitol were, in its opinion, true.

The congressman told WND that as he read the report he learned how Jefferson, the man who originated the term separation of church and state had a much different idea in mind than the modern interpretation of that expression.

“[I]t was to be a one-way wall, where the state would not dictate to the church. But the church would certainly play a role in the state,” said the former chief justice of the Texas 12th Court of Appeals.

“So, that’s a little different idea than a lot of people have about separation of church and state, including some our esteemed Supreme Court (justices) who are not quite as familiar with our history as they probably should be,” added Gohmert.

All utter nonsense, of course. I really can’t see how anyone who has read Jefferson’s writings — and Gohmert almost certainly has not — could possibly make such a claim. It was the wedding of religion and government that Jefferson was opposed to, and in the most fierce of terms. Read the section on religion in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, where he recounts the history of religious oppression in his own state while it was still a British colony, which happened directly as a result of it having an established church (Anglican, of course) and seeking to suppress all others.

The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they shewed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government. The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect. Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets. If no capital execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances which have not been handed down to us. The Anglicans retained full possession of the country about a century…

This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom. The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error…

Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith. Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments.

This idea that the wall of separation only goes one way is absurd. Yes, the government is forbidden from interfering with the free exercise of religion (with some narrow exceptions, of course), but the Establishment Clause also forbids any religious from taking power and imposing their doctrines on those of other religions or not religions. Freedom of religion IS freedom from religion. One cannot exist without the other.

Gohmert recalled how the nation’s religious traditions trace back to its origin.

“When George Washington took the oath of office he put his hand on the Bible and finished the oath by adding the words ‘So help me God,’ as every president since him has done.”

No, Gohmert does not recall any such thing. What he does is repeat a tired old myth that has been debunked by historians over and over again. Here is Peter Henriques, a history professor at George Mason University, doing exactly that:

One of the most widely held myths about George Washington is that immediately after he took the prescribed oath to become the nation’s first President, he solemnly added the words, “So help me God” and thus began a tradition that has been followed ever since. Unfortunately, this myth, accepted by such fine historians as David McCullough and Kenneth C. Davis, is given further credence in a video released by The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies maintained by the Senate Rules Committee. Entitled ‘So Help Me God,’ it shows president after president uttering the words and authoritatively declares that George Washington first used the phrase. In fact, an examination of the historical evidence demonstrates that such a claim is almost certainly false.

There is absolutely no extant contemporary evidence that President Washington altered the language of the oath as laid down in Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” A long letter by the French foreign minister Comte de Moustier, who attended the ceremony, repeated the oath verbatim and did not include the additional words. Apparently, it was not until 65 years after the event that the story that Washington added this phrase first appeared in a published volume. In his book, The Republican Court, Rufus Griswold cited a childhood memory of Washington Irving as his source. It took another 27 years before the first clearly documented case of a President adding the words, “So help me God,” was recorded — when Chester A. Arthur took the oath in 1881.

But it is the fate of a Christian right lie that it should never die, living on as it is repeated and all evidence ignored in the service of historical revisionism.

Comments

  1. 2-D Man says

    [I]t was to be a one-way wall

    Ah, the great check valve of separation of church and state.

  2. Moggie says

    Gohmert helped bring some of America’s forgotten sacred history to light when he asked the Congressional Research Service to do an objective, non-partisan review to learn if the things he had read and learned about prayer in the Capitol were, in its opinion, true.

    Your taxpayer dollars at work.

  3. Abby Normal says

    As I recall, and someone please correct me if I’m wrong, Washington had a habit of skipping Sunday service and showing up right at the end to shake hands with folks as they exited the church. He would do this at various churches in the area. In other words, he was more politician than parishioner.

  4. says

    You cannot have a one-way separation. If the government isn’t acting to favor the policies of “the church,” then it is not meaningfully controlled by it. If the government is meaningfully controlled by “the church,” then it is favoring that church over all of the other “the churches,” which is necessarily an interference in the practice of those other “the churches.”

    A one-way “wall of separation” is a logically incoherent concept.

  5. colnago80 says

    Re Abby Normal @ #6

    It is my information that Washington attended services at the Episcopal Church in Alexandria, and occasionally at the Falls Church Episcopal Church where he was a vestryman. However, he notoriously left before the Communion service, declining to take Communion.

  6. John Pieret says

    A one-way “wall of separation” is a logically incoherent concept.

    Which is, precisely, why it comes from Gohmert.

  7. rory says

    I’d be curious to see this report CRS supposedly prepared for Gohmert. I’m curious whether his description of its findings is accurate (which doesn’t speak well of CRS), or whether he just didn’t bother to read it.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Abby Normal @ # 6 – I don’t have time to go digging up references, but what I’ve read from several reliable sources has it that Washington would attend the first parts of a religious service (when he went to them at all), but would invariably leave before the communion service – which he apparently considered nonsense on stilts.

  9. jimmiraybob says

    Dear Mr. Esteemed First Chief Supreme Court Justice of the United States, Joseph Story,
    What say you regarding this matter?
    From Joseph Story’s Commentaries(1):

    § 1841. The remaining part of the clause(1) declares, that “no religious test shall ever be required, as a qualification to any office or public trust, under the United States.” This clause is not introduced merely for the purpose of satisfying the scruples of many respectable persons, who feel an invincible repugnance to any religious test, or affirmation. It had a higher object; to cut off for ever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government(2). The framers of the constitution were fully sensible of the dangers from this source, marked out in the history of other ages and countries; and not wholly unknown to our own. They knew, that bigotry was unceasingly vigilant in its stratagems, to secure to itself an exclusive ascendancy over the human mind; and that intolerance was ever ready to arm itself with all the terrors of the civil power to exterminate those, who doubted its dogmas, or resisted its infallibility.

    To clarify a bit:

    It had a higher object; to cut off for ever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government.

    And why would that be?

    They knew, that bigotry was unceasingly vigilant in its stratagems, to secure to itself an exclusive ascendancy over the human mind; and that intolerance was ever ready to arm itself with all the terrors of the civil power to exterminate those, who doubted its dogmas, or resisted its infallibility.

    1)
    http://www.constitution.org/js/js_000.htm

    RE: § 1837. The next clause is, “The senators and representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the-several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support the constitution.1 But no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

    2) Some, such as myself, might read this as a principle of complete separation between government and religious zealotry, somewhat akin to building an impermeable wall with no one-way doors. Of course, I’m open to hearing other readings.

    Note: I just posted this comment elsewhere but it seems to fit well here.

  10. matty1 says

    How can a wall be one way? This not only fails as a metaphor, it fails in describing what it is meant to be a metaphor for. You cannot have a government that serves religion and doesn’t restrict it because every act in support of your beliefs is an imposition on your neighbour who believes differently.

  11. jimmiraybob says

    Dagnabbit, I meant to add that the Esteemed First Chief Supreme Court Justice of the United States, Joseph Story (September 18, 1779 – September 10, 1845) is widely considered to have been quite familiar with our history.

  12. colnago80 says

    Re jimmiraybob @ #12

    A couple of corrections.

    1. Story was an Associate Justice of the SCOTUS, not the chief justice.

    2. The first Chief Justice of the SCOTUS was John Marshall.

  13. Abby Normal says

    colnago80 @8

    I believe there was more to the story. Washington realized he was deeply offending some members of the church by leaving early, so he stopped attending altogther. Instead he would show up afterward to shake hands and socialize. As time went by and he became increasingly involved in politics he started showing up at other churches as well.

    I’m trying to remember where I read it. I’m thinking, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. I’ll see if I can find it when I get home.

  14. Ellie says

    @17

    He “realized” that he was offending people when the priest preached a sermon about people turning their backs on the sacrament. Washington knew perfectly well to whom that sermon was aimed, and he stopped coming to services.

  15. dingojack says

    So let’s see -
    Virginia was set up as an Anglican enclave
    Maryland was set up as a Catholic enclave
    New England was initially a Puritan enclave but due to their excesses became a bastion of religious freedom.
    So how did that work out?
    Let’s ask the British diplomat Augustus Foster ….
    “The New Englanders, generally speaking, are very religious; though there are many exceptions, I cannot say so much for the Marylanders, and still less for the Virginians.”
    Hmmm. The paradoxical effect of the Law of Unintended Consequences?
    ;) Dingo

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