Oct 30 2013

In the Interest of Historical Accuracy and Honesty, I Must Correct Myself

On Sunday morning, during an appearance on CNN’s New Day, I made a statement that was incorrect, so, in the interest of historical accuracy and honesty, I need to issue a correction.

I was debating Ron Crews, the head of an organization called the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, on the issue of cadets at the Air Force Academy being forced to swear religious oaths that end with the words “So help me God.”

When responding to the usual rhetoric about the founders and oaths, I pointed out that the first military oaths under the Constitution, written by the founders in 1789, did not include the words “So help me God,” and that these words weren’t added until much later — not until 1862 for officers, and 1962 for enlisted personnel. Unable to argue with these historical facts about military oaths, Mr. Crews tried to change the subject by launching into a completely unrelated and irrelevant story about how religious the founders were, saying:

“Well, I find it interesting that on the same day that this complaint was filed in 1781 Congress heard of the American victory at Yorktown and they immediately processed en masse to a church in Philadelphia to give thanks. That’s what our founders did in 1781 when they heard the victory they — Congress left the hall that they were meeting in, processed together to a church to give thanks. That’s the founding of our country.”

I wrongly assumed that there was no truth to this story.

Here’s the video of the whole segment:


I assumed at the time that Mr. Crews’s Congress-goes-to-church story was was just one of the many similar stories I’ve seen and heard over the years that have no truth to them whatsoever, such as the one about the Constitutional Convention marching to church to pray for three days when things weren’t going well, so I said that story wasn’t true. In this case, however, the story actually was basically true. It was just exaggerated a bit. The Congress did, in fact, attend a church service on the day that the news of the victory at Yorktown reached Philadelphia. They didn’t immediately jump up and march off to church, as Crews said, but they did go later that day.

When word reached Philadelphia on the morning of October 24, 1781 that the British had surrendered at Yorktown, a city-wide celebration began, and part of this celebration was a church service performed that afternoon by one of the chaplains of Congress, Rev. George Duffield. A resolution was introduced by Edmund Randolph that the Congress attend this afternoon service together, and it passed. According to newspaper accounts of the day, the celebration began at noon, with an artillery salute being fired in the state house yard, coinciding with the ships in the harbor also firing a salute at the same time. The church service was at 2:00 p.m., and it was reported in a Philadelphia newspaper a few days later that “the honorable the congress, the minister of France, the council, the chief officers of the state, and a considerable number of great and respectable characters, both in the civil and military line, attended.” So, yes, the Congress did attend this service.

Of course, even a true story of the Continental Congress attending a church service in 1781 still has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue at hand, which is the constitutionality of cadets being made to swear religious oaths at the Air Force Academy.

What is relevant about the members of that 1781 Congress who attended that church service, however, is that many of them were the very same men who, in 1778, wrote the oath signed by the officers of the Revolutionary Army — an oath that not only didn’t include the words “So help me God,” but also left a blank space for each officer to fill in for themselves whether they were choosing to “swear” or “affirm.”

This was the oath signed by George Washington and all his generals and other officers:



If this was good enough for George Washington, why isn’t it good enough for the Air Force Academy?



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  1. 1
    Al Dente

    I’ll bet large amounts of money there wasn’t a single Air Force officer, cadet or enlisted at that 1781 church service.

  2. 2

    Perhaps the essential point here is that the members of Congress that day LEFT their building to go to a non-government building to see a church service put on by a church, NOT by the government. So even in 1781, the members of Congress were keeping the distinction between official government acts and acts where they participated as individuals. I don’t think that Congress had a roll call inside the church, or penalized any members who spent the time in a tavern or whatever instead of the church. The fact that they all agreed to recess, so that several could attend it, does not mean that they were all requiring themselves to ALL attend. It is these sorts of distinctions that the religious right never wants to notice or admit.

    Virtually no atheist in America has ever tried to get religion removed from the public square. We just want it removed from the government space, and left to the realm of individual free choice. But the religious right refuses to accept the American tradition of freedom of choice regarding religious issues, and then plays dumb when they get caught.

  3. 3

    While many of the founders were themselves Christian, they didn’t necessarily want to see the country become Christian by rule of law. So tales about how devout they were in their own behaviors don’t persuade that we should have government endorse religion. People on the right seem to consistently miss this distinction, and offer up irrelevant arguments.

  4. 4

    There seems to be a deliberate intent here to conflate areligious or atheist with secular, which allows them(in there own minds) to argue that the founding fathers therefore wanted religious considerations in government.
    Thank you for taking the high road and correcting any of your errors.
    Now I’m waiting for David Barton to announce a correction of his………….*crickets*

  5. 5

    Fucking CNN! Gentlemen? Really?

  6. 6

    You do realise that actually being intellectually honest, admitting mistakes and correcting yourself puts you at a huge disadvantage with people like Barton?

  7. 7

    Sorry you got roped into making a false statement. Thanks for the honesty though, that definitely sets you apart from the theocratic horde. (among many other character qualities) It’s absurd how the fact that people attended a church service makes them automatically Dominionist Christian zealots. I knew religion was dangerous but not that dangerous. Keep up the good work (so long as you desire). Your blog has shone light upon the shadows of false history and the modern charlatans who mislead the public with these lies.

  8. 8

    I get very frustrated by attempts in the religious right to prove how religious the Founding Fathers were, an quote mining their opinions on religious observance. It’s all just smokescreen. It doesn’t matter what any Founding Fathers practiced as their religion, or whether they thought everyone should worship their god or not. When it comes to what the government is allowed to do, the *only* thing that matters is what they wrote into law. And what they put in law is that there can be no religious tests for office, and no law can respect an establishment if religion.

  9. 9
    Mike Morrison

    gshelley @6:

    Actually, I beg to differ. Correcting her mistakes actually GIVES her a huge advantage over liars like Barton. Barton only has a huge advantage with the hard-core religious right members. But in general society, honesty is far more important for far more people who are not of the same ilk as Barton.

    And yes, I noticed that the interviewer for CNN called Chris a “he,” and said “gentlemen.” That was a bit….awkward. lol.

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