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Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Religious Test

This post discusses the startling results from a poll/quiz previously posted on this blog regarding the US Constitution.  Surprisingly, only a minority of respondents can correctly identify which statement about God and religion is actually in the Constitution.

Now, of course this poll is not a scientific one, and one should use caution in interpreting the results of  such a poll, but nevertheless I suspect it is indicative of profound ignorance of the US Constitution.

Before I reveal the results, let me state the poll one more time to give the reader an opportunity to see which answer he or she would have marked as correct.

The poll asks the reader to finish the statement, "the Constitution states:"

The following options were given as choices:
  • Men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"
  • In God We Trust
  • There shall be "separation between Church and State"
  • "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States"
  • One Nation Under God 

The results of the poll are shown in the following bar graph:

Only 39%, a plurality, but not a majority got the correct answer, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Article VI of the Constitution states:
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 this Constitution; but no 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 this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. (Source)
This phrase is the only mention of God or religion in the body of the Constitution itself (The First Amendment is discussed below. Its text was not one of the choices in the quiz; note also that the date that the Constitution was adopted is stated as "the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven. " ).

So where do these other phrases come from?

Endowed By Their Creator

This phrase comes from the Declaration of Independence, which states:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Source)
It is important to note that the legal meaning of the Declaration of Independence as to its standing in law is somewhat ambiguous:
Although the Declaration of Independence stands with the Constitution as a founding document of the United States of America, its position in U.S. law is much less certain than that of the Constitution. The Declaration has been recognized as the founding act of law establishing the United States as a sovereign and independent nation, and Congress has placed it at the beginning of the U.S. Code, under the heading "The Organic Laws of the United States of America." The Supreme Court, however, has generally not considered it a part of the organic law of the country. For example, although the Declaration mentions a right to rebellion, this right, particularly with regard to violent rebellion, has not been recognized by the Supreme Court and other branches of the federal government. The most notable failure to uphold this right occurred when the Union put down the rebellion by the Southern Confederacy in the Civil War. (Source)
In God We Trust

This phrase appears on US coins.  It was directed by an act of Congress in on April 22, 1864. Since that time it has occasionally been left off of coins:
The use of IN GOD WE TRUST has not been uninterrupted. The motto disappeared from the five-cent coin in 1883, and did not reappear until production of the Jefferson nickel began in 1938. Since 1938, all United States coins bear the inscription. Later, the motto was found missing from the new design of the double-eagle gold coin and the eagle gold coin shortly after they appeared in 1907. In response to a general demand, Congress ordered it restored, and the Act of May 18, 1908, made it mandatory on all coins upon which it had previously appeared. IN GOD WE TRUST was not mandatory on the one-cent coin and five-cent coin. It could be placed on them by the Secretary or the Mint Director with the Secretary's approval.
The motto has been in continuous use on the one-cent coin since 1909, and on the ten-cent coin since 1916. It also has appeared on all gold coins and silver dollar coins, half-dollar coins, and quarter-dollar coins struck since July 1, 1908. (Source)
In 1956, at the height of the cold war, the motto was adopted as an official motto of the United States. The phrase now appears on paper currency as well as on coins.

Separation Between Church and State

On January 1, 1802 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists in support of the First Amendment's religious clauses.  The text of the final letter that he sent is as follows:
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem. (Source)
In an 1879 decision, Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States found that Jefferson's language of a wall separating Church and State was an authoritative statement on the meaning of the religious clauses of the First Amendment:
Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order. (Source)
So although this phrase may be an authoritative interpretation of an amendment to the Constitution, it is not itself to be found within the Constitution.

Under God

The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist named Francis Bellamy in 1892.  Originally, he wrote:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. (Source)
In 1923, it was changed to read:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. (Source)
It was adopted by Congress in this form in 1942.  Twelve years later, in 1954, during the cold war, at the urging of President Eisenhower, the phrase "one nation, indivisible" was divided with the phrase "under God."  The issue of whether to include the phrase has been divisive one ever since.

The First Amendment

The battle of the role of religion in public life centers around the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.(Source)
It is necessary to mention that the First Amendment has been incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment and is therefore binding on the states as well as the Federal Government.

The amendment prohibits the establishment of religion and also protects the free exercise of religion.  These parts of the amendment are termed "the establishment clause," and the "free exercise" clause.  There is an inherent tension between establishment and free exercise.

A perfect example of that tension is the existence of the Army Chaplain Corps.  The Corps exists to guarantee soldiers the right to free exercise of their religion.  Yet the Chaplain Corps must carefully walk the line of not violating the establishment clause.  A cursory look at court cases involving the Chaplain Corps make evident the difficulty of walking this line.

The Chaplain Corps is perhaps a microcosm of the nation at large that must constantly struggle to find the right balance between "establishment" and "free exercise."

Sources