This week, the discussion over religion’s role in government affairs once again took center stage in Congress, but this time, the firestorm of debate was sparked by a relatively minor detail noticed by an Eagle Scout. The young man requested a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol to honor his grandfather. Flags flown over the building are accompanied by certificates that ensure the authenticity of the artifact. The boy and his father soon contacted their local representative (Rep. Michael Turner), expressing disappointment that the certificate had been altered from their original request and now excluded a reference to God. After receiving the flag and certificate, they noticed that the inscription, which was supposed to read “In honor of my grandfather Marcel Larochelle, and his dedication and love of God, country, and family,” no longer contained the word “God.”
Turner discovered that the certificates were under the charge of the architect of the Capitol, Steven T. Ayers, who adopted a policy of not including religious references on the certificates. That’s when the case began to pick up some steam.
Turner rallied more than 100 of his Republican colleagues and sent a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, expressing outrage for the removal of God from the certificate. Pelosi responded by saying that the move was not “anti-religious” and that the architect adopted the policy because “people were asking for statements that not only were religious, beyond using the word God, but political as well.”
The letter sent by the largely GOP group expressed their own concerns about the slippery slope that could be created if such a measure were upheld, even accusing the policy of censoring free expression: “The Architect’s policy is in direct conflict with his charge, as well as the scope of his office and brings into question his ability to preserve a building containing many national religious symbols.”
Though the camps eventually came to a compromise yesterday (which would allow representatives to contribute custom messages to constituents’ certificates), the conflict over a seemingly minor detail draws to light a much larger debate. Recently, more legal action was taken (in a failed attempt) to have several references to God taken out of government-sponsored items. An atheist in California has tried several times to ask the courts to enact legislation that would remove the phrase “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency. He also filed a lawsuit to have the words “under God” taken out of the pledge of allegiance.
Further questions about not only Christianity’s role in policy, but other religions’ influence on government, were made clear recently when a Hindu clergyman made history by giving the Senate’s morning prayer. Police arrested several protestors who began shouting, “This is an abomination” as the prayer began. As police removed the protestors, one of them told onlooking reporters, “We are Christians and patriots.” Advocates for the Hindu-led prayer argued that if Christians were allowed to open meetings with prayer, the same opportunity should be opened to other faith leaders.
And though many would argue for the Christian roots of the United States and defend the historical significance of the phrases “In God We Trust” and “Under God,” the recent events continue to make the issue of Christianity’s role in government an object of passionate debate.