God's Role in Presidential Inaugurations and Beyond
The inauguration of George W. Bush on Jan. 20, 2005.
CREDIT: White House
Next week, Barack Obama will place his hand on the Bible and swear an oath to serve the United States as its president and preserve the U.S. Constitution to the best of his abilities.
Before his oath, there will be an invocation performed by the Rev. Rick Warren; not long after it, a benediction by the Rev. Joseph Lowery.
While Obama's inauguration will only be following tradition, this significant "omnipresence" of God at the ceremony has some people in a lather.
One group of self-proclaimed atheists is suing Warren and Lowery, among others, claiming that the inclusion of "so help me God" during the presidential oath violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Neither the phrase "so help me God" nor the use of a Bible are officially required in the presidential oath, ironically, but they are both often used regardless. Nor is the separation of church and state explicitly spelled out in the Constitution.
What does the First Amendment actually say about the separation of church and state? Not a whole lot, historians say, though its words have been misinterpreted since the beginning.
1st Amendment was tool to help pass Constitution
When the Founding Fathers sat down in Philadelphia to draft the U.S. Constitution in 1787, they were preoccupied with establishing the machinery for an effective new government and included very few guarantees of individual rights.
Though some members of Constitutional Convention brought up the benefit of including some kind of bill of rights, those recommendations were rejected, probably because delegates feared more sticky debate over the already controversial document, historians say.
It wasn't long before those safeguards became important, with some states refusing to ratify the Constitution without the addition of protections for individual rights. Thomas Jefferson called the original omission of a bill of rights a major mistake, according to a letter he wrote to James Madison, and pushed the future president to draft the amendments.
The promise of the future inclusion of the Bill of Rights eventually appeased the dissenters and helped get the Constitution ratified by the required number of states in 1789.
Officially added in 1791 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, the religious portion of the First Amendment to the Constitution became known as the Establishment Clause:
"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."
Jefferson separated church and state
Besides its usefulness in getting the Constitution passed, the original intent of the First Amendment was to ensure that residents of the new United States enjoyed a tolerant society, not necessarily one completely free of religion.
Fresh in the minds of many of the early immigrants to America was persecution at the hands of the governments in their home countries. The First Amendment prohibited the U.S. government from mingling in the religious business or forcing worship on any of its subjects, but did not make an outright proclamation that the affairs of the state should be totally void of any religious connotations.
The famous "separation of church and state" utterance is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who, though an intensely spiritual man himself, wrote this as president in an 1802 letter to leaders of a minority faith in Connecticut:
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and 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,'" he wrote, "thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church and State."
Plastic reindeers deemed constitutional
Church and state are decidedly un-separate today, argue groups such as the one protesting Obama's inauguration plans. Examples often cited include:
- The Pledge of Allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all."
- "In God We Trust": found on all U.S. paper bills and coins, it became the official national motto in 1956 — at the height of anti-atheism and anti-Communist sentiment — and the state motto of Florida in 2006.
- The employment of Chaplains in Congress and the military.
Court cases challenging the Establishment Clause are frequent. Many debate the practice of school-sponsored prayer, or the presence of religious displays in public places during the holidays.
In two such cases in the 1980s, one Christmas crèche display was deemed constitutional because it also included secular figures such as a plastic reindeer and thus was considered a general celebration of the season, while the other reindeer-free display was declared in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Perhaps Obama should request a few plastic former presidents be thrown into the ceremony and make it an overall celebration of inauguration day!
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