Last week, “America’s pastor” Billy Graham became the first religious leader ever to lie in honor at the US Capitol Rotunda, a precedent criticized by secular groups and others as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution. Graham’s treatment was hardly the first time Christianity has been notably elevated inside the Capitol Building. During National Bible Week late last year, I was frankly stunned to hear a speech of full-on religious proselytizing by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD), my state’s lone congressional representative.
And Noem wasn’t the only lawmaker fulsomely adoring the Lord and extolling Christianity’s purported virtues that day (November 14). Another nine elected representatives sermonized, all Republicans from the South except Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), a House committee chairman who formally introduced the others to the rostrum. Come to think of it, it all sounded like a Billy Graham crusade. “Americans have the right, under our wonderful system of government, to respect and study the Bible, or any other system of belief, if they so choose, or even no belief at all,” Lamborn said. “That is the beauty of the American way, and I believe it is founded and goes back to the Bible.”
That seems to cancel out or at least demean the “or even no belief at all” part.
So, I ask, why? In a secular democracy such as ours, with its radical founding impulse to rigorously disentangle church and state, why are extravagant displays of religious worship appropriate, much less actually allowed in our government’s most hallowed public building?
These congressional speeches, initially carried on C-SPAN and now endlessly elocuting on YouTube, effectively were part of a government-funded, government-endorsed event that—formally and officially—supported the blatantly purposeful selling of Jesus and Christian ideology to the American people. That’s proselytizing and indoctrination, certainly not a constitutionally appropriate government activity. Is it?
“I couldn’t get away from my background and my family heritage of being raised by Christian parents that were raised by Christian grandparents, that worked hard and believed that the instruction book for life was the word of God,” Rep. Noem said in her speech, concluding, “I pray that we’re being servants for God’s good that we allow him to light our path. We humble ourselves enough to build our house on his firm biblical foundation. In this day, whatever we do, we do to the glory of God.”
So, she’s saying the government should do God’s bidding? Thomas Jefferson, for one, would spin in his grave.
How does this respect atheists, agnostics, humanists, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and other folks of non-Christian faiths and philosophical inclinations who also populate our body politic? This display of religious proselytizing tells non-Christian and nontheistic others that their elected congressional leaders—91 percent of whom are Christian—believe and officially proclaim that Christianity is best for all Americans and what we should all embrace. This kind of dreamy-eyed majoritarian coercion is exactly—exactly—what our deist founding fathers feared.
“It will never be pretended that any person employed in [US government] service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven,” second US President John Adams wrote in A Defense of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States 1787-1788. “It will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
Jefferson, our third president, advised in a 1787 letter to his friend Peter Carr that people should: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, then that of blindfolded fear.”
How might we guess Adams and Jefferson would respond to coercive Christian sermons, delivered publicly by elected federal legislators on the floor of Congress, America’s national public house, and financed by Congress during a special week endorsed by the government to glorify the holy book of a single religion?
Certainly they would not have shared Rep. Lamborn’s take on the meaning of National Bible Week. “This is the week set aside to recognize the Bible as the foundational building block of Western civilization, the Judeo-Christian heritage, and the legacy that motivated and shaped the founding of the United States,” he said, noting that Jesus Christ was his lord and savior. The Enlightenment, this is not.
Despite the event’s clearly sketchy nature as it relates to the Constitution and our founders’ desires, it has been formally endorsed by our government for seventy-six years.
Again I ask, why?
I sent this query to Noem via her official website’s “contact” form, explaining that I was writing an article:
As a nontheist and passionate proponent of the Founders’ wishes to keep church and state separate, I was deeply disheartened to listen to your Christian proselytizing sermon (and other lawmakers’) on the floor of Congress during National Bible Week in November. It is difficult for me to view this overt sectarian display of Christian branding—by government lawmakers, in a formal government venue, during a government-sanctioned week endorsing one specific religion—as at least an unconscionable endorsement of a particular religion in contempt of the spirit of the Constitution if not an actionable unconstitutional case of government “establishment” of religion. How is this appropriate in a secular republic, which constitutionally grants freedom OF religion as well as FROM religion? I view this as official forcing of religious ideas on the citizenry.
About ten days later, one of her aides left me a voicemail limply explaining that Rep. Noem’s position is that “religion has long been a part of House activities” and that the institution has an official, nondenominational chaplain. Indeed, chaplains in both the Senate and House have been in place since the late 1700s, but the original rationale for having one was somewhat speciously based on the first half of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 of the US Constitution, which states the House “shall choose their speaker and other officers” (emphasis mine). So, they designate chaplains as “officers.” President James Madison, our fourth president and the lead architect of the Constitution, believed himself that congressional chaplains were clearly unconstitutional.
Noem’s aide stressed that the congresswoman is unaware of Congress passing any laws “establishing religion” or “prohibiting the exercise thereof,” indicating the body’s actions appear to be constitutionally appropriate. He added that his boss is “a proud Christian” and often talks about her faith. Incidentally, she said the following in a message posted on her official website last Friday:
Rev. Graham’s spiritual influence has helped shape the way I view the role of faith in government…. President Reagan once said, ‘If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under.’ How true that statement is!
US presidents have been formally declaring the week of Thanksgiving as National Bible Week as far back as Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Unfortunately, Japanese forces attacked American installations and ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7 that year, greatly disrupting but not derailing plans for the special week’s debut.
Apparently, in the intervening seven-plus decades, nobody with enough clout has stopped to consider whether a government-endorsed national week honoring Christian scripture was an un-American idea in the first place. And so, evangelicals continue to stand on the floor of Congress (or lie in a closed coffin in the Rotunda) and push their Lord on the American people, whether they believe in such a God-man being or not.