Even Congress has recognized that America has a civic religion.
Presidents, as well as many other citizens, attended church services held on Sundays in the United States Capitol building. President Thomas Jefferson, “during his whole administration, 1801-1809, was a most regular church attendant,” documents James H. Hutson in Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Ministers of several Christian denominations conducted the services. Honoring the nonsectarian God of creation in public and on government property is an important manifestation of civic faith. In addition to attending church services in the Capitol building, Thomas Jefferson made significant financial contributions to that ministry.
“After the Civil War, from 1865-1868, the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., permitted the newly organized First Congregational Church of Washington to use its chambers for church and Sunday school services. During that same time, specifically on June 13, 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment which, according to some later judicial foolishness, forbids religious activities on public property.”*
Addressing Congress, Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed: “I anticipate nothing but suffering to the human race while the present systems of paganism, deism and atheism prevail in the world.”**
English language Bibles had to be imported from England until 1782 when Congress authorized Robert Aitken to commence the first American printing of the Bible in English. Aitken was also the official printer of the Journals of Congress for the United States Congress. The following year, George Washington wrote a letter of commendation to Robert Aitken for his “Bible of the American Revolution.”
On September 25, 1789, Congress requested unanimously that President Washington proclaim a national day of thanksgiving and prayer. This is the same Congress that on the same day approved the final draft of the First Amendment to protect the people’s rights to religious freedom from suppression by government administrators, judges and legislators. President Washington proclaimed on October 3, 1798: “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor… Now, therefore, I do recommend… that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed… And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions… And to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.”
In 1954, Congress ordered that “a room with facilities for prayer and meditation…” be made available in the United States Capitol. The seventh edition of The Capitol, an official publication of the United States Congress, describes the stained-glass window of the Congressional Prayer Room:
“The history that gives this room its inspirational lift is centered in the stained glass window. George Washington kneeling in prayer… is the focus of the composition… Behind Washington a prayer is etched: ‘Preserve me, O God, for in Thee I put my trust,’ the first verse of the sixteenth Psalm. There are upper and lower medallions representing the two sides of the Great Seal of the United States. On these are inscribed the phrases: annuit coeptis–‘God has favored our undertakings’–and novas order seclorum–‘A new order of the ages is born.’ Under the upper medallion is the phrase from Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address, ‘This Nation under God’… The two lower corners of the window each show the Holy scriptures, an open book and a candle, signifying the light from God’s law, ‘Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path’ [Psalm 119:105].”
A primary duty of government officials and most certainly the duty of professors and teachers whose salaries are funded by taxpayers is to promote the liberating principles of the nonsectarian American civic creed that has been discussed in this and earlier posts.
**Benjamin Rush, Annals of Congress 1834, vol. I (September 25, 1789), 949-50.
~ David Norris