Monday, June 06, 2005

Religious Services in the US House

I was just doing my daily reading and stumbled across this link to a Library of Congress exhibit on "Religion adn the Found of the American Republic." It has original documents about Jefferson's "wall of separation" comment in a private letter, but more important is this:
It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson's example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House--a practice that continued until after the Civil War--were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a "crowded audience." Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.
Can you begin to imagine the howls and outrage if this were attempted today? But I think the Founders were much closer to right then than we are today. It's not freedom from religion, as many are trying to make it, but freedom of religion, free from persecution by the government for the practice and expression of our beliefs, whatever they are.

I'm perfectly fine with Nativity scenes and Christmas decorations in public buildings by either the folks who work there or by members of the public. Of course, that means a reciprocal openness to Islamic and Jewish celebrations and even the odd pagan display. I think the fears of Christians over pagan displays are overwrought, even if sometimes the non-Christian displays have a certain pointed purpose behind them beyond religious expression.

Fear of religion shouldn't trump expression. Those who fear simply need some futher education.

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