Is it news when the librarian of Congress, James Billington, says that the media are biased, and that the bias has an anti-religion slant? That’s what Billington said at a recent news conference to unveil an exhibit called “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.” His exact words were: “The dominant role religion played in the earliest days of this country is largely ignored by media, academics and others.”
Those comments were not front-page news; rather, they ended up in a story on page nine of the second section of the Washington Post. The Post, of course, is a very secular paper which treats Christmas as a holiday featuring Santa Claus rather than Jesus Christ. Still, the decision to play down James Billington’s comments is extraordinary. To our knowledge, Billington is not a member of the Christian Coalition. Yet here he was making a statement about religion, public life and the media that could have come from the lips of evangelist Pat Robertson.
The Post story about the exhibit, now being featured at the Library of Congress, carried the subheadline,“Library of Congress Looks at a Cozier Era in Church-State Relations.” Consider that phrase “cozier era.” This is how the Post acknowledges that the founding fathers envisioned a close relationship between religion and public life. The Post reproduced the Liberty Window, from Christ Church in Philadelphia, which depicted the Continental Congress praying in 1774. Some of them were on their knees.
The Congress is still opened with a prayer every day, but can you imagine a majority of its members praying on their knees as C-SPAN captures the event? This is not meant as a criticism of Congress but as recognition of how things have changed. But why have they changed? Here is where we part company with the Post. As Billington suggested, it is clear that things have changed because the media have developed a bias against the celebration of religious values. The surveys show that very few members of the Washington media even attend church.
The Post story about the Library of Congress exhibit notes that it includes a latter President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. This is the letter in which the famous phrase “separation of church and state” appears. The Post says the phrase has been cited in several Supreme Court decisions since the 1870s that attempt to make sense of the First Amendment. Today, the phrase is quoted as if it were actually part of the Constitution.
What the Post does not make clear is the time-line—that Jefferson’s phrase “separation of church and state” was written 13 years after the First Amendment was ratified. What’s more, Jefferson did not write the First Amendment and wasn’t even in the country when the Constitution was written. A better judge of the meaning of the First Amendment was George Washington, president of the Continental Congress and President of the country when the First Amendment was passed and ratified. Washington is one of those leaders depicted in the Liberty Window kneeling and praying to God.