Bush Starts Off by
Defying the Constitution
by Alan M. Dershowitz
The very first act of the new Bush administration was to have a Protestant Evangelist minister officially dedicate the inauguration to Jesus Christ, who he declared to be "our savior." Invoking "the Father, the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ" and "the Holy Spirit," Billy Graham's son, the man selected by President George W. Bush to bless his presidency, excluded the tens of millions of Americans who are Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, agnostics and atheists from his blessing by his particularistic and parochial language.
The plain message conveyed by the new administration is that George W. Bush's America is a Christian nation, and that non-Christians are welcome into the tent so long as they agree to accept their status as a tolerated minority rather than as fully equal citizens. In effect, Bush is saying: "This is our home, and in our home we pray to Jesus as our savior. If you want to be a guest in our home, you must accept the way we pray."
But the United States is neither a Christian nation nor the exclusive home of any particular religious group. Non-Christians are not guests. We are as much hosts as any Mayflower-descendant Protestant. It is our home as well as theirs. And in a home with so many owners, there can be no official sectarian prayer. That is what the 1st Amendment is all about, and the first act by the new administration was in defiance of our Constitution.
This was surely not the first time in our long history that Jesus has been invoked at an official governmental assembly. But we are a different and more religiously diverse nation than we were in years past. There are now many more Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others who do not accept Jesus as their savior. It is permissible in the U.S. to reject any particular theology. Indeed, that is part of our glorious diversity. What is not acceptable is for a presidential inauguration to exclude millions of citizens from its opening ceremony by dedicating it to a particular religious "savior."
Our first president, George Washington, wrote to the tiny Jewish community in Rhode Island that in this new nation, we will no longer speak of mere "toleration," because toleration implies that minorities enjoy their inherent rights "by the indulgence" of the majority. President Bush should read that letter and show it to the Rev. Franklin Graham, who told the media on the day before the inauguration that his prayer "will be for unity"; instead, it was for the Trinity. Uniting for Jesus may be Graham's definition of unity, but it is as un-American as if a rabbi giving the official prayer had prayed for the arrival of the "true Messiah," thus insulting the millions of Christians who believe Jesus is the true Messiah.
Inaugurations are not the appropriate setting for theological proclamations of who is, and who is not, the true Messiah. Perhaps at Bob Jones University it is appropriate for an honorary degree recipient to declare Jesus to be the only king of the United States, but the steps of the Capitol should not be confused with the lectern of a denominational church.
The inauguration ended with another Protestant minister inviting all who agree that Jesus is "the Christ" to say, "Amen" (ironically, a word that originated in Jewish prayer or, alternatively, originally a Jewish acronym for "God, the King, forever.") Senator Joseph Lieberman (Democrat from Connecticutt), along with many others who do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, was put in the position of either denying his own faith or remaining silent while others around him all said, "Amen." This is precisely the position in which young public school students are placed when "voluntary" prayer is conducted at school events. If they join in prayer that is inconsistent with their religious beliefs, they have been coerced into violating their conscience. If they leave or refuse to join, they stand out as different among their peers. No student should be put in that position by their public schools at an assembly, just as no public official should be placed in that situation by their government at an inauguration.
If George W. Bush wants all Americans to accept him as their president, he made an inauspicious beginning by sandwiching his unity speech between two divisive, sectarian and inappropriate prayers.
Alan M. Dershowitz Is a Professor at Harvard Law School