Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Don't Know Much About History: The Sandy Rios Story

On Monday afternoon, evangelical radio gabber Sandy Rios interviewed Michael Newdow, an atheist who is suing to have the words "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. Throughout the interview, Rios demonstrated her ignorance of history, historical methods, and principles of government. Naturally, she believed that she understood all the relevant facts.

Given her belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, you might think that Rios might have some grasp of the concept that some documents and statements are more authoritative than others. She doesn't. When Rios quoted a prayer that George Washington offered for the United States that was directed to "almighty God," Newdow correctly pointed out that the prayer reflected Washington's personal beliefs rather than the position of the government. When Newdow noted that almighty God wasn't mentioned in the Constitution, Rios replied "That doesn't matter." To Rios, the personal beliefs of various notable Americans are more than adequate justification for ignoring the Establishment Clause.

Rios did not seem to have a very good command of what was in the Constitution. At one point, she challenged Newdow to explain why the Bill of Rights referred to being "endowed by their Creator." Of course, that is the Declaration of Independence, which unlike the Constitution, is not the supreme law of the land. Perhaps I am being unduly harsh on Rios since it is the kind of mistake that the vast majority of Americans would make. Still, if you are going to claim to understand the Framers position on religion, you need to know which ideas made it into the Constitution.

Rios did not even seem to have a very clear idea of when the Constitution was written. At one point she claimed that she "like[d] to read the things that go back closest to the actual events" when she considers historical questions like this. However, she then proceeded to cite something lauding Christianity that was written by the House Judiciary Committee in 1854, seven decades after the adoption of the Constitution. Of course there was also the question of why she considered the statement authoritative as she did not say why the Committee issued the statement, i.e., whether it was some sort of official report or just the bloviating of a committee member or a witness.

As I have noted before, in order to claim that their belief in the Bible is a matter of provable facts, evangelical Christians must embrace a very distorted notion of what constitutes evidence. The Culture Campaign routinely asserts that their position is conclusively proved when they can find anything that supports it. Campaign President Sandy Rios demonstrated that anything that contradicts their position can be routinely dismissed, even the Constitution of the United States.


  1. not that you asked my opinion, but... it bothers me when people waste money on stupid stuff like "under God" ...get over it. But it bothers me more when Christians are thick-headed and ignorant, especially in regards to our Constitution; if you're going to base your arguements on the Founding Fathers, etc, better get them facts straight!

  2. JK,

    I figure that writing a blog implicitly invites opinion. Thanks for adding yours.

    The problem with Bible thumpers like Rios is that they would not know a fact if it smacked them in the head. They simply assume that anything that supports their position is a fact while everything else is biased propaganda.

  3. You're simply raggin on her for confusing a few points. There are plenty of books describing the faith of the founders (that is, those that had faith and how many). But more importantly, I think it's a real stretch to say that acknowledging our Christian roots is akin to establishing a religion. One cannot deny that Christianity played a large part in people coming here, how they set up their communities, and what they hoped for them. That they kept some measure of separation between their faith and government was never intended to prohibit the further influence of religion, only the forced acceptance of a particular religion. It is Newdow that is way off base, even if Rios had even more points confused.

    Also, I may also be confusing the two documents, but I believe they both contain the date stated as "in the year of our Lord" etc etc.

  4. Yes, here it is:

    "Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth."

    I guess the real question regarding the establishment clause, is whether it is a sign of establishing a religion if members or employees of the government, who are employees of the people who are mostly Christian acknowledge or recognize religion or speak in religious terms or put up religious decorations during Christian holy days and holidays. Plainly, to me anyway, it would take legislation to be considered establishment and definite force. Neither was done when "under God" was inserted as far as I know, and no one was to be forced to recite the pledge or the phrase, thought I don't doubt some overzealous teachers may have done just that.

    So Sandy was wrong there. God IS mentioned in the Constitution at least at the end.

  5. "In the Year of our Lord" is the English translation of the Latin phrase Anno Domini which is appreviated A.D. It is merely a designation of date. It does not invoke religion or God with respect to any matter within the text of the Constitution. It is true that "Lord" refers to Jesus Christ. However, there were many Unitarians and deists among the founding fathers who did not profess the deity of Christ so it cannot be assumed that "Lord" in this context is the equivalent of "God."

    We can of course argue about what the founders intended the various clauses in the Constitution to mean. Nevertheless, it is the Constitution that was ratified as the supreme law of the land. It is the authoritative text to be interpreted. What it says trumps the personal opinions of the founding fathers.

  6. But they didn't use "A.D." They used the entire phrase. In other words, they intentionally used the word "Lord", which I don't agree means only Jesus Christ, as it is used extensively throughout the Old Testament as well. I think it also points to the opinion that they weren't against the use of religious expressions, or religion in the normal course of the daily ins and outs of government, as they used government building for religious services, referred to Scripture with abandon and began every governmental meeting with prayer. Even Benjamin Franklin, no holy roller, encouraged the founders to appeal to their God during a particularly contentious period in the composition of the founding documents. There's much that the founders would find surprising regarding our take on their work, and liberal notions of church/state separation and the establisment clause would be among them for sure. I've got my facts straight on this for sure.

  7. When used to designate a date, "the Year of Our Lord" refers to the time after Christ's birth. "Before Christ" is used to designate Old Testament times.

    With all due respect, if you haven't read enough American history to understand the meaning of the apportionment clause, I find it very difficult to take your analysis of the establishment clause seriously.

  8. With all due respect, you've done nothing to show how it means what you say it means. Thus, to demean my question is simply to crap on my position for subjective reasons. Mine was an honest bit of wondering and a logical question at that.

    As to my analysis, are you saying they didn't institute prayer before government business? didn't use public buildings for religious services? didn't adorn government buildings with religious symbols? didn't refer often to Scripture in debate of potential legislation? None of these things establishes religion at all. For that legislation is required and that's never happened. But today, all of that would give separationists like Newdow the vapors. The few non-religious amongst the founders, as well as the religious who supported separation at the time, had no troubles with such practices.

  9. Regardless of their personal religious beliefs, which ranged from orthodox Christianity to deism, the Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution as the supreme law of the land and they chose to leave God and religion out of that document. Perhaps they would have done things differently if they had foreseen the consequences of that choice, but we are bound by the law they made.

    Contrast the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence where "Nature's God" is identified as the source of rights. The Constitution does not declare any relationship between any of its provisions and any conception of God. The only relationship implied by "In the Year of the Lord" is the chronological relationship between the date of the document and the date of Jesus' birth.

  10. But there is no point to putting "year of our Lord" in the document at all. How would anyone, even four thousand years from now, have trouble understanding when the thing was written if they didn't even put "A.D." after the date? That doesn't make any sense. Yet they took the trouble to write it out. I'm not saying it's a significant acknowledgment, but it is there. And doing so doesn't disturb anything else about the intention of the document. I wonder if The Federalist speaks about THIS at all.

  11. In the Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln could have said "eighty-seven years ago" instead of "four score and seven years ago." He chose the latter purely for stylistic reasons because those words sounded more solemn and momentous. They in no way altered the meaning of anything else in the speech.

    The Constitution was a formal document and the date was designated in the most formal manner possible.