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Assault on church/state separation: Pt. 2

Published: March 21, 2008
Section: Opinions


Last week, I discussed several attacks on the separation of church and state that have made their way through the House of Representatives. In this column, I will explore the latest such resolution that has been introduced, H. Res. 888.

The majority of the text of H. Res. 888 is made up of a series of 75 ‘whereas’ statements. Intending to provide justification for the actual resolutions that follow, they resort to distortions of American historical events and quotes from famous Americans stripped from context in order to create a false narrative of America’s history as being fundamentally religious in nature.

For example, one statement reads, “Whereas throughout the American Founding, Congress frequently appropriated money for missionaries and for religious instruction, a practice that Congress repeated for decades after the passage of the Constitution and the First Amendment.” The footnotes of the resolution go on to cite federal apportionments to Native American tribes to support its claim. Even if the text is taken at face value, it does not seem like a part of our history Congress should be glorifying. Should we celebrate the fact that federal funds went to cajoling conversions to Christianity from the original inhabitants of this land? It is almost a relief, therefore, to find that the original statement is almost entirely false. While it is true that Congressional apportionments to Native Americans did occasionally go toward religious purposes, they only were granted for one of three purposes: to fulfill provisions of treaties in which Congress promised a church at a tribe’s insistence, to rebuild religious structures destroyed by the British in war, or to increase the curriculum in missionary schools, which provided the only formal education on Native reservations. While this undoubtedly contributed to the government’s invasive indoctrination and suppression of Native American culture, it is patently incorrect to say that Congress has specific religious goals in mind. In fact, out of the many hundreds of treaties the government signed with Native American tribes, only nine contain any religious language at all, and in none of these cases did the language support an explicitly religious aim. To state that the government has this tradition of supporting religious instruction is to misrepresent history.

Another blatant untruth comes in the two statements concerning the Liberty Bell. While their more modest content makes them seem more innocuous, they serve as another example of the shoddy research that went into the document. The first reads, “Whereas 4 days after approving the Declaration, the Liberty Bell was rung.” It sounds like there’s no problem; however, this event never happened. The Bell was in a state of significant disrepair in 1776, and ringing it would probably have been impossible. The ringing of the Bell slowly developed as a part of American mythology, but an official Congressional resolution should hold itself to a high standard of truth. This problem is compounded by the following statement, “Whereas the Liberty Bell was named for the Biblical inscription from Leviticus 25:10 emblazoned around it: `Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof'”. The inscription is indeed emblazoned on the Bell; however, its connection with the Bell’s name is just coincidental. The Bell was cast with the inscription in 1745 and hung in the State House in Philadelphia eight years later. However, it was not referred to as the Liberty Bell until the mid-1800s, when it was used as a symbol for the abolitionist movement; until then, it was known just as the State House Bell. To claim an explicitly religious origin for this American icon is deceitful.

Many of the ‘whereas’ statements quote Founding Fathers, Supreme Court Justices, and past presidents when they spoke about religion. Unfortunately, in making their point, the statements all too often distort the original intention of the speaker to make him (all the figures quoted are men) appear more accepting of intertwining religion and government than he actually was. For example, one statement reads, “Whereas President Teddy Roosevelt declared `The Decalogue and the Golden Rule must stand as the foundation of every successful effort to better either our social or our political life.’”

What the resolution fails to note is that Roosevelt made this statement long after he had left the bully pulpit of the presidency. In fact, the speech from which the quote was taken was given to a Christian men’s group; clearly it was meant to serve as a declaration of private belief more so than a mandate for public policy. After all, Roosevelt is also quoted as saying, “I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State; that public moneys shall not be used for the purpose of advancing any particular creed; and therefore that the public schools shall be non-sectarian and no public moneys appropriated for sectarian schools.”

One must wonder what Roosevelt would think of H. Res. 888, particularly the earlier boast of “appropriat[ing] money for religious instruction”. This isn’t the only instance of Roosevelt specifically arguing against something the resolution trumpets. While the resolution states, “Whereas, in 1864, by law Congress added ‘In God We Trust’ to American coinage,” Teddy said, “my own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege…” I can only imagine how disgusted Roosevelt and other noteworthy advocates of separation of church and state such as John F. Kennedy would be to see their own words used to connect religion and government.

Yet as odious as these statements are, the real threats to our freedoms come in the actual statements of resolution. Next week, I will complete this three column series with an examination of what H. Res. 888 resolves and what each of us can do to fight its passage and defend our Constitution.