Benign acknowledgment

One thing Kennedy said in the Greece ruling

That the First Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains only days after approving language for the First Amendment demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.

Well if so, the Framers were wrong. One, it’s not automatically “benign”; two, it’s a lot more than a mere acknowledgment; three, religion’s role in society is not necessarily something that should be encouraged, let alone imposed.

I for one don’t consider it at all benign for a major branch of government to give its imprimatur to the fanciful idea that there’s a Big But Absent Person in charge of us all and paying attention to our “prayers.” It’s a silly childish belief on a par with belief in fairies or ghosts, and it’s only this kind of supposedly “benign” public deference to it that allows to many people to think otherwise. It’s far from being just an acknowledgment; it is an endorsement.

Religion’s role in society is a mixed bag at best. There’s no obvious reason for Congress to “acknowledge” that role at all, and in any case hiring a chaplain to deliver a daily prayer is not acknowledgement but participation.


  1. says

    the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society

    The framers considered smuggling, slavery, and capital punishment to be good ideas, too. See? They were wrong about all kinds of stuff.

  2. says

    They were wrong about all kinds of stuff.

    Whoa! Careful with that line of thinking! I once got (virtually) yelled at by an American for saying that the American Founders were “mere humans”, subject to all of humanities faults.

  3. screechymonkey says

    Sure, and one of the early Congresses passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and John Adams signed it, but pretty much everyone today agrees that those Acts violated the First Amendment by criminalizing criticism of the federal government.

    Not to start an extended debate about originalism, but this is the silly game you get into when you obsess about what the “Framers” or the the “Founding Fathers” thought. They weren’t a monolithic group mind; they disagreed on all sorts of things, and the Constitution (and later, the Bill of Rights) was a patchwork of various compromises. As in most such cases, they probably never had any consensus among themselves about what any particular provision meant, because if they had it would have blown up the compromise. Sometimes it’s all you can do to say “no establishment of religion,” and not try to hash out every single implication of what that means.

    And even if you can discern some solid consensus on a particular point of interpretation, then as Ophelia suggest, so what? The Framers can be wrong, too. They had all the flaws and imperfections of human beings, and were subject to mistakes and hypocrisy. Slavery being the obvious one. But Jefferson, for example, also made that idiotic quote, so beloved of right-wing militia groups, about periodically watering the ground with the blood of tyrants — he didn’t even think the Constitution should last more than a couple of decades.

    And ultimately, it’s not even the opinions of the Framers who should matter anyway. They weren’t monarchs or oligarchs endowed with special powers to bind the colonies. They were just representatives of the people and their respective state governments who actually had to ratify the Constitution.

    When people agree to be bound by a principle, they don’t always realize all the full implications of it. I don’t really care that when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, most people didn’t think that “equal protection of the laws” meant that people had a right to marry someone outside of the their race, and almost nobody thought it meant a right to marry someone of the same gender. Those rights still logically flow from that principle, whether they realized it or not.

  4. dshetty says

    prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society
    I dont understand the line of reasoning – if the prayer is purely ceremonial, traditional, benign , role acknowledging then it should not matter to either party whether its done or not. The fact that both party disagree enough that the case reached the Supreme Court should be enough to disprove that statement.

  5. RJW says

    @2 .

    …and Voltaire’s prayers were answered.


    Yes, they were men of their time and culture, I doubt whether many of them intended to found a democracy.


    Reasonable comments, until you wrote “representatives of the people”, no they weren’t, they were representatives of an exclusively male propertied class, i.e of an oligarchy.

  6. chrislawson says

    Except appointing chaplains is absolutely not the same as legislating prayer. Kennedy should be ashamed of himself for using such a transparently false argument to bolster his religious bigotry.

  7. says

    How much overlap was there between the group of people known as the Framers and the members of the First U.S. Congress anyway? If Framers didn’t make up at least a simple majority of Congress, one can hardly argue that Congress was of one mind with the Framers, seeing as how they wouldn’t have been the same people. And as screechymonkey rightly points out, it’s entirely possible that Congress simply didn’t understand the full ramifications of the amendments they’d just passed.

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