Harvard Square Observer
Mucking Around with the Constitution
Editorial note: Ye Olde Observer is presently in London, the English London, enjoying the cultural activities - concerts, plays, etc. - of that great city. Okay! The cultural activities include sitting in his favorite pubs. But, be that as it may, while he is away, the HSC will be featuring columns from the past. He likes to think of them as “golden oldies.” Whether you agree, of course, is another matter!
Published in the HSC edition of 10 October 2005
Whenever I hear an American politician end a speech with “God bless you and God bless the United States of America,” my mind strays to the various places I have lived over the years. I may have missed something, of course, but I don’t recall politicians in England, Switzerland, or Germany claiming unique divine protection for their nations. I remember how upset some Americans were at the old German anthem, “Deutschland über alles.” In their minds, apparently, only the United States could claim to be number one. I cannot help but wonder what goes through the minds of folks in, say, Hungary, Denmark, Outer Mongolia, or even the Vatican, when Americans make such claims.
Predictably, when the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco declared that the words “under God,” inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance by Congress in 1954, to be unconstitutional, members of the House of Representatives gathered on the step of the Capitol and recited the Pledge. And, not to be outdone, the Senate voted 99 to 0 to condemn the court’s action. Lest we conclude that one brave member stayed away rather than participate in such a farce, we are informed that Senator Helms was ill. So, there was not one “profile in courage” among them.
Some have defended the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge as harmless, referring to it as “Civic Deism,” in effect saying that it is meaningless. (I wonder what the deity appealed to thinks of that!) Others have come up with the non sequitur that the Founding Fathers were believers. Well, some, maybe. But, this did not necessarily lead to spotless lives. It was said by his contemporaries that Gouverneur Morris of New York possessed a wooden leg because he had lost his limb in jumping from the balcony of his mistress when her husband showed up unexpectedly. You will recall that Alexander Hamilton, when serving as Secretary of the Treasury, was accused of financial dealings with a particularly shady character. In defense, he published a pamphlet denying it, and stating that he was paying off Mr. Reynolds because he was having an affair with the gentleman’s wife!
When the debate at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was becoming overheated, Benjamin Franklin suggested they join in prayer. Hamilton objected to his proposal, saying the Convention should not appeal to a foreign power!
The result of that Convention, our prized Constitution of the United States, does not refer to God, and includes a specific prohibition of religious tests for office. But, there is always someone mucking around with that great document. Thus, those assuming federal office are asked to take the oath prescribed in the Constitution. Those administering the oath, including the Chief Justice in swearing in a president of the United States, end it with the words “so help me God,” words not in the document, and, thus, unconstitutional!
Those in favor of a “Civic Deism” point to the fact that the House and the Senate both hire chaplains, who begin their sessions with prayer. Certainly a violation of the spirit of the Constitution. When the first House of Representatives met, it was proposed to hire a chaplain. James Madison, one of the leading voices in the Constitutional Convention, opposed this. When he realized he would lose, he called for the House members to pay the chaplain’s salary out of their own salaries. You can guess that he lost that vote!
As president, Madison, as Thomas Jefferson before him, refused to call for days of prayer and thanksgiving, declaring that government had no business interfering in religious matters. And, Jefferson, of course, spoke of the “wall of separation” between church and state.
Some of us are old enough to remember the days when we were required to say the Lord’s Prayer, as well as the Pledge, at the beginning of each school day. The Roman Catholic kids dropped out of the recitation after the words “and deliver us from evil,” the Protestants continuing with “for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,” etc. And, our Jewish friends remained silent throughout. I always felt bad that they were strangers in their own country. It was not a unifying experience.
The teacher then read from the Bible. I remember one particular teacher with affection, for she usually turned to the Twenty-third Psalm, apparently not being very familiar with the rest of the contents. As I result, to this day I can recite the Psalm fairly accurately. But, this practice, too, went by the board, as a result of court action. There was grumbling, of course, some declaring that the public schools were “godless.” Those people were expecting the schools to do what their churches apparently were failing at. If the courts ultimately uphold the ruling declaring the words “under God” unconstitutional, Americans will adapt. We always do.
This will not cure the arrogance of our leaders, however. They, sadly, will continue to act as if our nation is particularly blest, and, thus, in a position to tell the rest of the world to shape up, or else!
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