The First Congress Hired Chaplains

Happy and true. The first Congress, in the Year of our Lord 1789, which considered, discussed, and voted on the First Amendment of the United States Constitution hired chaplains within the same week. This is a fact that even the separation of church and state extremists don't deny, but rather write it off as either a flagrant violation of the law or an insignificant piece of information.[1]

Since we have already handled the futility of arguing that the framers violated a law which they had just passed, let us look at the fact that this is certainly not an insignificant piece of information. First, it is important because it happened within the same time frame as when the amendment was passed.[2] If it happened a significant amount of time later, one might make the argument that through the course of time the importance of the amendment waned (as the importance of the Second Amendment seems to be waning today). But alas, it wasn't that way. The chaplains were hired within the same week.

Next, it is important because it reveals the original intent of the framers. Had they truly intended to divorce religion completely from government, then certainly wouldn't have bothered to hire chaplains. They could have quite simply put their stamp of approval on separation of church and state extremism once and for all by abstaining from such comingling of religion and government, but they didn't. As Chief Justice Warren Burger observes:

"Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment Religion Clauses did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress."[3]

Finally, it is important because chaplains, by definition, serve a religious function. These weren't simply janitors or advisors, they were men of God, serving Him as they saw fit within the doctrines of their own denominations. Their salaries, however, were paid with public monies. So here we have public financing of a spiritual function - hardly something in line with what the church/state mafia preaches today, but that's not surprising.

So, right here, we see that the concept of separation of church and state as thought of by the First Congress was substantially distinct from the demagoguery that we hear today. But let's move on. There are more examples.

[1] Mr. Allison, in his attempt to cast some doubt on the propriety of the early Congressional appointment of chaplains, has left us with a sort of fictitious dialog between Chief Justice Warren Burger and James Madison. On his web page, he acknowledges the historical fact of the appointment of chaplains, but cites James Madison as an opponent of that public office. No one denies that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson supported a strict separationist viewpoint on various occasions. However, the fact that such a viewpoint was rejected (or ignored) by the legislative majority at the time is what is telling. Mr. Allison focuses on the exception, rather than the rule. While quoting extensively from the dicta of the Chief Justice, Mr. Allison also fails to address the contention between Messrs. Brennan and Burger regarding Madison's role in supporting the bill authorizing the payment of chaplains. The former claims that, "James Madison, who voted for the bill authorizing the payment of the first congressional chaplains, ante, at 788, n. 8, later expressed the view that the practice was unconstitutional, see supra, at 807-808, is instructive on precisely this point. Madison's later views may not have represented so much a change of mind as a change of role, from a Member of Congress engaged in the hurly-burly of legislative activity to a detached observer engaged in unpressured reflection. Since the latter role is precisely the one with which this Court is charged, I am not at all sure that Madison's later writings should be any less influential in our deliberations than his earlier vote." Well, Mr. Brennan, we are not at all sure that Madison's earlier vote should be any less influential than his later writings. Also, we are not sure where Mr. Brennan gets the characterization of the early Congress as a "hurly-burly of legislative activity" and how that, even if accurate, should disqualify Mr. Madison's position at that time. Was Mr. Madison incapable of rendering sound judgment during this "hurly-burly of legislative activity"? See Marsh v. Chambers for the complete decision.

[2] Mr. Allison, in his ongoing vigilance to trample under foot the true meaning of the First Amendment, has left us with a sterling testament of his desperation. He has attempted to itemize various "discrepancies" between his position concerning the reality of the situation and Mr. Burger's dicta in Marsh v. Chambers. In that essay, Mr. Allison quibbles about the exact date of the appointment of chaplains. He also nitpicks about the fact that Mr. Burger referred to the Congressional appointment of chaplains, when the Chief Justice apparently was referring to an executive signature. Mr. Allison concedes that two of his "discrepancies" are "small point[s]", in which he claims that Mr. Burger was off by one day regarding the date in which the final wording of the Bill of Rights was reached, and fusses about the First Amendment of today being the Third Amendment of two centuries ago. In fact, all of Mr. Allison's points are small, and what he appears to be doing is quibbling about small points in an effort to generate some type of confusion about the historical reality of the situation: THE FIRST CONGRESS, WHICH PASSED THE BILL OF RIGHTS, ALSO AUTHORIZED THE APPOINTMENT OF LEGISLATIVE CHAPLAINS. No amount of verbal tapdancing can get Mr. Allison around that fact.

[3] See Marsh v. Chambers.


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