Michael Newdow is about to become as famous as Madelyn Murray O’Hair. For some of our younger readers, O’Hair was instrumental in getting prayer removed from public schools.[1] In a 1963 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a government sponsored prayer was unconstitutional. This has led to the banning of all things religious from public schools. The decision made O’Hair the country’s most infamous atheist, so much so that in 1964 Life magazine called her “the most hated woman in America.”

In a similar fit of ideological rage, Michael Newdow had petitioned the court to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. He has recently filed a federal lawsuit to prevent a prayer being said at George W. Bush’s upcoming inauguration. Newdow claims that the prayer will violate the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state. Let’s let history decide if Mr. Newdow has a case.

The first order of business of the first United States Congress was to appoint chaplains. The Right Reverend Bishop Samuel Provost and the Reverend William Linn became publicly paid chaplains of the Senate and House respectively. Since then, both the Senate and the House have continued regularly to open their sessions with prayer. Nearly all of the fifty states make some provision in their meetings for opening prayers or devotions from guest chaplains. Few if any saw this as a violation of the First Amendment.

On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office with his hand on an open Bible. After taking the oath, he added, “I swear, so help me God.” Following Washington’s example, presidents still invoke God’s name in their swearing-in ceremony.[2] The inauguration was followed by “divine services” held in St. Paul’s Chapel, “performed by the Chaplain of Congress.”[3] The first Congress that convened after the adoption of the Constitution requested of the President that the people of the United States observe a day of thanksgiving and prayer:

That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.

After the resolution’s adoption, Washington then issued a proclamation setting aside November 26, 1789, as a national day of thanksgiving, calling everyone to “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."[4]

Prayers in Congress, the appointment of chaplains, and the call for days of prayers and thanksgiving do not stand alone in the historical record. The evidence is overwhelming that America has in the past always linked good government to religion–and, in particular, to Christianity. Constitutional scholars Anson Stokes and Leo Pfeffer summarize the role that the Christian religion played in the founding of this nation and the lofty position it has retained:

Throughout its history our governments, national and state, have co-operated with religion and shown friendliness to it. God is invoked in the Declaration of Independence and in practically every state constitution. Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, is universally observed as a day of rest. The sessions of Congress and of the state legislatures are invariably opened with prayer, in Congress by chaplains who are employed by the Federal government. We have chaplains in our armed forces and in our penal institutions. Oaths in courts of law are administered through use of the Bible. Public officials take an oath of office ending with “so help me God.” Religious institutions are tax exempt throughout the nation. Our pledge of allegiance declares that we are a nation “under God.” Our national motto is “In God We Trust” and is inscribed on our currency and on some of our postage stamps.[5]

After only a cursory study of the years leading up to and including the drafting of the Constitution and the inauguration of the first president, it becomes obvious that Christianity played a foundational role in shaping our nation. It is not surprising that when courts had to define religion, they linked it to the Christian religion. In 1930 the Supreme Court declared, “We are a Christian people, according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God.”[6]


[1] http://dunamai.com/articles/atheist/editorials.htm
[2] Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr., God in the White House: How Religion Has Changed the Modern Presidency (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 37. [3] Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 87. [4] Quoted in Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, 87. [5] Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, 102-103. [6] United States vs. Macintosh, 283 U.S. 625 (1930).