Listen, My Children, and You Shall Hear
So began Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow's famous poem “Paul Revere's Ride.”
What shall our children attending public schools hear about God and his relationship to America? Six dissenting judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals’ Pledge of Allegiance case stated that silence sends a powerful and wrong message to children. I concur.
The central tenet of our American Revolution was phrased by the late President John F. Kennedy in his January 1961 inaugural address: “[T]he rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”
If students in a public school read this text and inquire of their teachers whether it is true, our teachers must not dismiss the question and say they can neither affirm nor deny it; nor must they limit themselves to saying it was a personal belief of Kennedy's. The teachers must say it is true.
On Feb. 18 came news that “the nation's oldest atheist civil rights group” was filing an amicus brief against God with the Supreme Court.
Or, at any rate, an amicus brief in favor of removing the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance in the case currently before the high court.
During a public religious procession, in communist Krakow, Poland, then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II, boldly declared: “[A] nation … has a right to the truth about itself.” Similarly, our children have the right to know the truth about the American Revolution.
The rights we today call “human rights” — encompassing free press, free speech, free assembly, free association and freedom of religion — are not asserted by us independently of God but come from God. They would be better called “divine rights for human beings” or “divinely endowed human rights.” Our revolution was not like the French Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution. Ours was bloody but not a bloodbath.
And it was not godless.
We know this now and the Revolutionary War generation knew it then. Every public schoolteacher should affirm as true statements made in our Declaration of Independence: It is God's law that entitled us to a “separate and equal station” with other countries; we Americans place “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence”; our “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” come from our “Creator.”
We are not our own creation. America is not our own creation. We do not will ourselves and we do not will this nation into existence. Humbly and respectfully, we and our nation are God's, whether we act like it all the time or not. We are “under God.” It is in God we trust, not in ourselves alone.
The minority, including the adults and children who are atheists or who are otherwise not adherents to one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), certainly have rights we must accommodate in some fashion, but their rights should not be allowed to silence us and our children's teachers on the question of the truths we hold as a body politic to be “self-evident.”
Any Supreme Court decision that would ban the teaching of self-evident truths enshrined in our Declaration of Independence to our young as a violation of the U.S. Constitution would obviously be an unconstitutional amendment to the Constitution rather than an interpretation of it. No member of the Revolutionary War generation could possibly think the First Amendment would prevent tax-supported teachers from affirming as true each and every statement in the declaration. If that is the result desired, then the people should themselves amend the Constitution.
As a nation, we must reject every attempt either to prohibit as unconstitutional official mention of — and prayer to — God or approve such as constitutional only if they are deemed ceremonial, patriotic, historical or serve to solemnize an event. Let us be honest: The latter characterizations are often hypocritical subterfuges to avoid the former ban. The problem is the ban, the great prohibition.
When the bailiff opens a session of the U.S. Supreme Court with “God save the United States and this honorable court,” it is a prayer; it is an abbreviation of “O God, save the United States and this honorable court” or “May you, God, save the United States and this honorable court” from every evil, error and injustice.
If it is merely ceremonial or serves merely to solemnize the event, if the bailiff and the court do not mean the words, then they are using the name of God like President Mikhail Gorbachev used the word “god” when he was head of the communist Soviet Union; the prayer should be eliminated from use because it takes the name of God in vain in violation of the Second Commandment. God ain't quaint. His holy Name is not window-dressing for our window, a prop on our stage or veneer on our table. The world is his; it is his stage on which we act; it is his table of life to which he has welcomed us.
The Thanksgiving Days proclaimed by Presidents Washington and Lincoln, the two presidents our nation most reveres, were religious holidays, days set aside for prayer and fasting. Thanksgiving Day is not constitutional because it is historical — a day commemorating the first such day of the pilgrims. Rather, it is constitutional in the deepest sense.
Although Thanksgiving Day has been contorted in our time into Turkey Day and a day on which we are thankful for what we have obtained for ourselves, the day is intended to thank unabashedly the one, holy and immortal God for the blessings he has bestowed on our nation.
We would be wise to allow — indeed encourage — our students and their teachers to imitate President Lincoln.
In his second inaugural address, he explored the relationship between the nearly concluded Civil War and the purposes of God. Every nation is called, like ours, by God and has a unique vocation in human history. Our nation is tethered to God. In the past century, our courts have sought to break this tether. If the courts continue on their path, we will, in Shakespeare's terminology, be “undone.” The problem is not whether believers are becoming marginalized, the problem is that the American Revolution, the American experiment, is being separated from its Source.
God is our creator, our provider, the source of our life and our liberties. A judicial command requiring the nation as such to forsake him by forbidding us from acknowledging this publicly and in our children's classrooms is as intolerable as any Intolerable Act passed by the British Parliament affecting the American colonies.
From the mouths of babes comes wisdom.
A Feb. 18 news report says that a fifth grader has collected 7,500 signatures on a petition that reads: “Dear Supreme Court of the United States of America: I understand that someone wants to take ‘under God’ out of our Pledge of Allegiance. I feel that you should not take that out of our Pledge. Also, I think that it is important that you know how we, the kids of America, feel about this decision. Shouldn't it matter how we feel about this? After all, we are the ones that stand up every morning and say the Pledge. Please consider all of the signatures from kids that feel the same way that I do. Thank you.”
Listen, my students, and you shall hear … of the story of the American Revolution and of American history — uncensored by federal judges.
As just one example, in 1787, 81-year-old Ben Franklin, not a minister, stood up and implored his fellow delegates to pray daily for the help of God in designing the U.S. Constitution. He reminded them that the Continental Congress had met in the same room, the statehouse in Philadelphia, and had prayed daily for divine help.
“Our prayers were heard … and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed the frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor … Have we forgotten that powerful Friend? … [T]he longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
Franklin then quoted Psalm 127: “Unless God builds the house, the work of the laborers is in vain.” He declared, “I firmly believe this.”
Without God's assistance, “Our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword down to future ages.”
James M. Thunder, former general counsel of Americans United for Life, writes from McLean, Virginia.
- February 29-March 6, 2004