We don’t need ‘spiritual war’ at Sussex County Council

August 21, 2012

This is not a political battle, but a spiritual war.” Such was the rallying cry of the Rev. John Betts, as quoted in the Aug. 10 Cape Gazette.

On Aug. 7, Betts and a group called Concerned Citizens of Sussex County attended Sussex County Council to show their support for the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer before meetings.

Earlier, a U.S. District Court judge had ruled council could not begin meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, saying it violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government-endorsed religion.

One often hears that our Founding Fathers intended for America to be a Christian nation. That is the reason, supporters say, we should open the sessions of public bodies with Christian prayer. It is asserted so often that many people accept it without question. Is it true?

Our nation’s government is based upon the Constitution, a document roughly analogous to the New Testament, the founding document of Christianity.

The Constitution, obviously, contains no mention of Jesus or even God. This should settle the matter. Try imagining a Christian church basing itself upon a version of the New Testament lacking all references to Jesus. You can’t.

Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum tries to get around this problem by saying the Constitution is simply an “operator’s manual” showing how our government works. He said the Constitution has “to be read in the context of another founding document, and that’s the Declaration of Independence.”

That’s hard to understand. If our forefathers had intended a Christian nation they surely would have made that clear in the “operator’s manual.”

But let’s consider Santorum’s argument anyway. What does the Declaration say?

It contains two references to a deity. The first paragraph refers to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The second opens with the ringing, “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 …”

Neither paragraph, of course, mentions Jesus, nor do they sound particularly Christian. What Christian would refer to God as “Nature’s God,” as though God were part of nature and not nature’s creator?

We can look next to men who drafted the document - Thomas Jefferson, the writer, and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the two other most influential members of the committee.

A man’s true religious views are, ultimately, unknowable, but we can be confident about some aspects of Jefferson’s beliefs. While he considered the teachings of Jesus to be a “most sublime and benevolent code of morals,” he also denied the divinity of Christ. His cut-and-paste version of the Bible - now called the Jefferson Bible - removed all references to miracles, the Trinity and the Resurrection.

Throughout his life, Jefferson kept up a lively correspondence. This excerpt, taken from an Aug. 6, 1816 letter to a Mrs. Samuel Smith, may be the most pertinent:

“But I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which were are accountable to him, and not to the priests. I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed.”

Jefferson isn’t denying the existence of God. He’s saying religion is a private matter.

Likewise, Adams’ writings provide scant support for the view that our Founding Fathers conceived of America as an exclusively Christian nation.

Here’s a quote from a letter that Adams, an avowed Unitarian, wrote to a Dr. Price on April 8, 1785:

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions … shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power … we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”

It seems unlikely Adams would find the opening of legislative sessions with Christian prayer as a way for “all men of all religions” to enjoy equal liberty.

Franklin provides an interesting case. In his autobiography he described himself as a deist. Shortly before his death, he wrote - with wit - about his doubts concerning the divinity of Christ.

But several weeks into the Constitutional Convention, Franklin had made an impassioned plea to open each session “imploring the assistance of Heaven” - an entreaty so eloquent it’s often used by those favoring government prayers.

The problem is, it was never adopted. During that hot summer of 1787, our Founding Fathers argued and bickered and squabbled and - without benefit of formal prayer - produced the Constitution of the United States.

Those calling to retain the Lord’s Prayer may have the best of intentions. Their actions, however, could wind up costing Sussex County Council’s time and taxpayers’ money.

There’s no cause for spiritual warfare at Sussex County Council. Our commissioners have their hands full attending to political matters. The example of our Founding Fathers shows they can do so without resorting to ritualistic prayer.

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