A few laughs at the expense of a "pretty great state"

April 7, 2002 2:53 PM   Subscribe

A few laughs at the expense of a "pretty great state"
Legislators' Ignorance Is Embarrassing
Few would argue that "a proper understanding of American history and government is essential to good citizenship," as stated in a bill written this year by the Utah Legislature and signed into law March 18 by Gov. Mike Leavitt.
But in its zeal to put God back in government, the Legislature revealed an embarrassing ignorance of America's history and its Constitution.
posted by onegoodmove (19 comments total)
What exactly about the bill is funny? I don't get it. All this stuff is already taught in every public school and "In God We Trust" is printed on all of our money.
posted by boltman at 3:23 PM on April 7, 2002

The phrase was added to US currency in 1861 " largely because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War."

The bill is funny because the legislator's recommendations are rather pointless and short-sighted. All those subjects should already be covered in any civics or us history class, and if the state is now mandated to do so, I would assume the bill is actually calling for selective teaching of the mentioned articles and documents, as there is plenty of racy stuff contained within.
posted by mathowie at 3:30 PM on April 7, 2002

"In God We Trust" was not printed on paper money until 1957 certainly not something our founding fathers initiated. Here is a source of more information on the origin of the phrase.
If you read the article and don't see the humor I'm afraid I won't be able to help.
posted by onegoodmove at 3:34 PM on April 7, 2002

Unfortunately, the authors of this particular article show as much ignorance of real American history as those they would purport to mock. Witness:

how about the Treaty of Tripoli, 1797: "The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

The Treaty was translated into English sometime in January or February of 1797, probably by an Algerian court official. The US official in charge of the signing in Algiers, Joel Barlow, did not know Arabic, but signed his name to a statement reading, "The foregoing is a literal translation of the writing in Arabic on the following page". As it turns out, Barlow's "translation" removed many cultural and religious references and in some instances changed the meaning to give they Dey of Algiers more authority and enforcement powers than was intended. Funny how that works, huh?

But it gets better. Addressing the specific phrase in question, Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776 - 1949 says this:

Most extraordinary (and wholey unexplained) is the fact that Article 11 of the Barlow translation with its famous phrase, "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion," does not exist at all. There is no Article 11. The Arabic text which is between Articles 10 and 12 is in form a letter crude and flamboyant and withal quite unimportant, from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli. How that script came to be written and to be regarded, as in the Barlow translation, as Article 11 of the treaty as there written, is a mystery and seemingly must remain so. Nothing in the diplomatic correspondence of the time throws any light whatever on the point.

The most likely explanation is that the Dey of Algiers wrote this note onto the Treaty to mollify certain concerns of the Pasha of Tripoli about entering into a treaty with an infidel (non-Islamic) nation. It is also possible (though not certain) that American foreign service officials, eager to conclude a treaty, then allowed the Barbary officials to continue under that impression.

Furthermore, there's a copy of the treaty in common circulation which bears Washington's signature and contains the "not, in any sense, a Christian nation" language. Despite how often it is cited in debates about Washington's religious beliefs, this treaty is a fraud. It is well established that Washington never signed the Treaty, because it didn't reach the President's desk until after March 1797, when John Adams was President.

So while the complete truth of the Treaty is lost in the mists of time, it certainly cannot be cited as evidence against the Christianity of early America. Barlow's "translation" of the treaty is clearly suspect, and only an idealogue or someone ignorant of the true history of America would present it as an unvarnished fact.
posted by gd779 at 4:00 PM on April 7, 2002

But the phrase is on our money now. The Supreme Court hasn't ordered the government to remove it. So why is it laughably ridiculous for the Utah legislature to post it in schools? I agree that it may not be a good idea, but I just don't see the humor in it.

As far as the first amendment issue, it is by no means clear exactly what the framers intended the establishment clause to mean. Certainly, people like Jefferson and Madison had strong views about it, but they weren't the only two involved in writing the amendment. In fact, it can be persuasively argued that the intent of at least some of the framers was to protect the individual states from federal meddling in their right to establish a state religion if they so desired. This view is bourne out by the fact that several of the states actually established particular religious faiths as their state religion, complete with publicly financed churches. Many of these state churches lasted well into the 19th century.
posted by boltman at 4:59 PM on April 7, 2002

Certainly, people like Jefferson and Madison had strong views about it, but they weren't the only two involved in writing the amendment. In fact, it can be persuasively argued that the intent of at least some of the framers was to protect the individual states from federal meddling in their right to establish a state religion if they so desired.

On that point, it's interesting to note that Jefferson opposed nationally-sponsored days of prayer as President, but supported state-sponsored days of prayer as governor of Virginia.
posted by gd779 at 5:04 PM on April 7, 2002

it's already kind of ridiculous that it's on our money, and putting it in our schools is no better. where would they put it, anyhow? on urinal cakes? on the uniforms? if the word god is going to be made a prominent part of a public school, I would prefer it to be in all lower case please.
posted by mcsweetie at 6:09 PM on April 7, 2002

I don't get it. Is the author of the article saying that students shouldn't learn about things like acts of congress and supreme court decisions because the government has done some pretty bad things in the past? All of the items listed by the bill (though "in god we trust" is questionable) should already be taught in schools and it seems like the author of the article is saying that students shouldn't learn about them.
posted by stopgap at 7:05 PM on April 7, 2002

That is why it is funny most of what's there is already taught. The concern of the legislature was not so much with history but with providing a way to include more religion. The state already teaches both State and American History in the schools. The amusing part is that the bill specifically refers to historical documents and basically includes everything they could think of that might have religious content whether it could be classified as historical in the sense of seminal works or even important later works, and included such things as the congressional record. I suppose because our youngsters totally missed out on Monica Lewsinsky and Ken Starr and the Utah legislature will use them to teach morality.
posted by onegoodmove at 7:52 PM on April 7, 2002

I understand, thanks largely to the comments already posted, why this bill is ridiculous and why the Salt Lake Tribune feels justified in mocking the state legislature & the governor. And maybe it's just that I'm dense, or that Bagley doesn't write funny stuff, or some of both, but this article didn't elicit one chuckle out of me.

Expecting something funny in the article and not finding it, I found myself mouthing that great line of Groucho's [tiny wav file].
posted by Bixby23 at 8:30 PM on April 7, 2002

I'd say it's more frightening than scary.
posted by mcsweetie at 8:39 PM on April 7, 2002

I think it's more scary than frightening.

But definitely a mixture of both.
posted by rodii at 9:12 PM on April 7, 2002

skallas, i just don't see how your conclusion is "obvious" from the language of the amemdment. First of all, it's not Congress that passed this paticular law, but the Utah state legislature. Second of all, "respecting an establishment of religion" is not exactly crystal clear, particularly when compared to the alternatives that were considered and rejected by the first Congress:

"Congress shall make no law establishing Religion"

"Congress shall make no laws touching religion."

It may well be that the modern Court's interpretation of the first amendment supports your view. But the interpretation the court has adopted is certainly not required by the text.
posted by boltman at 9:22 PM on April 7, 2002

Have you ever read an "organic document"?

*sigh* - I think as gd779 has pointed out about the author's ignorance on another matter, it's difficult to make fun of something when you don't know what you're talking about.
posted by alethe at 9:35 PM on April 7, 2002


And sympathy for skallas - "Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!"

Hee hee.
posted by alethe at 9:37 PM on April 7, 2002

it's not Congress that passed this paticular law, but the Utah state legislature

posts boltman

From the article

What about a historical document our legislators apparently overlooked -- the Utah State Constitution? "The State shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," it reads. "There shall be no union of Church and State."

Which I would consider even stronger language than the U.S. Constitution.
posted by onegoodmove at 10:34 PM on April 7, 2002

yes, i did read the article, but i was responding to your earlier post about the federal Constitution.

the language in the Utah constitution is just as murky as the federal Constitution. Putting "In God We Trust" in schools (or on money) does not necessarily signify a "Union of Church and State" nor does it necessarily imply "establishing" religion. It's more like promoting religion or expressing communal values. Again, I'm not saying that it couldn't be interpreted the way you suggest, only that it is one of several possible interpretations.

Not to mention federal law trumps state law.
The bill of rights was not held to be binding on the states until long after the passage of the 14th amendment. Even now, the second and third, and seventh amendments as well as part of the fifth are not legally binding on the states (i.e. states can legally ban guns if they want). So you're right in this case, but wrong as a general principle. if you read the Constitution, there's actually all sorts of things that federal government cannot force upon the states. (and with the current conservative court, the number of things that the feds can't force on the states is growing every year).
posted by boltman at 11:49 PM on April 7, 2002

I will say that it is odd that Utah is passing laws like this. You'd think that Mormons would be particularly sensitive to the persecution of religious minorities by a dominant religious group, given their somewhat rocky relationship with orthodox Christianity. But I guess it's easy to forget that in a state that is 70 percent Mormon.
posted by boltman at 11:58 PM on April 7, 2002

As near as I can tell, this is the bill he's talking about. Almost all of it is already existing law in Utah. Only the italic stuff is what's new -- that's the part at the very very end, the "in god we trust" stuff. All the document stuff Bagley is making fun of is already in the law, for goodness knows how long. His (rather sneering, I think) article makes it sound like everything in the bill is brand new.
posted by JanetLand at 5:47 AM on April 8, 2002

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