Since George Washington, Belief—in No Particular Religion—Has Been Part of the American Credo

April 10, 2019 | Antonin Scalia
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In a 1998 speech on Marine Corps radio, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the American tradition “has consistently affirmed a national belief in God—but not a national belief in a particular religion.” In this light, he lamented the trend in American jurisprudence since the 1960s that has sought to enforce government neutrality toward religion in general. Scalia invoked George Washington as the “best of exemplar” of the traditional view:

I want to speak this morning about one of our oldest and I think most important national traditions that has for some years been in grave and imminent peril: the traditional belief, expressed unashamedly in our national pronouncements and reflected faithfully in our public policies, that we are a nation under God. . . .

We have also had, from the very beginning, publicly supported army and navy chaplains, House and Senate chaplains who open each day’s sessions with a prayer, exemptions from state property taxes for houses of worship, “In God We Trust” on the coinage (since the Civil War), and yes, even opening of the sessions of the Supreme Court with the invocation “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.” This religious tradition of ours has consistently affirmed . . . the key distinction between official encouragement of religion, which was always practiced, and official favoritism of particular religious sects, which was prohibited.

When he presided over the 1787 convention in Philadelphia that drafted the Constitution, Washington wrote home to his wife, Martha, that “this morning, I attended the Popish mass.” Imagine this aristocratic Virginian attending a Roman Catholic church service. He attended . . . to demonstrate that this new nation would not favor one sect over another. This was the same extraordinary man who, in the first year of his presidency, would write a letter addressed “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” thanking them for their letter to him and saying, among other things, . . . “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” . . .

[However], our national tradition of public religiousness is imperiled, because many people, particularly opinion leaders . . . espouse the view that the government must be scrupulously impartial, not merely as between various religious sects and denominations but even as between religion in general and atheism. The Constitution, these people believe, forbids government from bestowing any special favor upon religion, even if it is done in a non-sectarian fashion. How serious the situation is may become apparent when I tell you that these people include (insofar as one can tell from the cases) a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court.

In the two decades that have elapsed since Scalia uttered these words, the secularizing trend has grown only more extreme.

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