James Madison, Sean Hannity,

& the

Question of Congressional Chaplains

[The following article and its follow-up below appeared on Left Hook! (reprinted with permission)]

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2002

Tonight, on Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes program, the issue of the appropriateness of congressional chaplains was discussed. Present was Michael Newdow, a California atheist who argued that congressional chaplains were unconstitutional. The heart of the conversation was a heated exchange between Newdow and co-host Sean Hannity, who finds Newdow's position ludicrous. Hannity laid out the heart of his case almost immediately:

"Who hired the first chaplain for congress? ...James Madison in 1789. Did you know that?"

Newdow didn't know that. Hannity dug in:

"You want to refer to some liberal activist judge..., that's fine, but I'm going to go directly to the source. The author of the Bill of Rights [James Madison] hired the first chaplain in 1789, and I gotta' tell ya' somethin', I think the author of the Bill of Rights knows more about the original intent--no offense to you and your liberal atheist activism--knows more about it than you do."

Hannity repeated this perhaps a dozen times, challenging the guest with it, pummeling him with it.

"...you think you have superior knowledge of the Constitution, and I'm telling you that the very author of the Bill of Rights is the first person to hire the first chaplain."

"Maybe if you studied history a little bit more for the cases you're involved in, you'd learn something."

If Hannity himself "studied history a little bit more," he'd know that Newdow had the best excuse in the world for being unaware that Madison had hired the first congressional chaplain--it isn't true. The first congressional chaplains weren't hired by James Madison--they were appointed by a committee of the Senate and House in, respectively, April and May, 1789, before the First Amendment even existed. While obviously unaware of this, Newdow was, however, aware that Madison had specifically repudiated congressional chaplains as unconstitutional. Though he didn't know the original source, he offered this, only to have it challenged by Hannity repeatedly [1]:

"Never saw any such quote by anybody."

"I have never seen any such quote anyplace, anywhere."

"...he [Madison] clearly had an understanding that is different from yours, in spite of some obscure quote that I question the authenticity of."

Though faring poorly under Hannity's grossly ignorant assault, Newdow was quite correct on this point. Madison, in what are commonly refered to as his "detached memoranda," went into the issue of chaplains very specifically:

"Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure
principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?" [2]

The only other point Hannity raised, in defense of his own position, was similarly false: He alleged that Benjamin Franklin "stopped the constitutional convention for a moment of prayer and fasting..." Hannity is referring to a motion made by Franklin to preface every day of the convention's work with a prayer. The record of the convention shows that only four or five delegates expressed any interest in this, and the motion died faster than it had been introduced, without even a vote. The "fasting" part is entirely Hannity's invention.

Hannity's "liberal" co-host Alan Colmes certainly made no effort to challenge any of these falsehoods, though he seemed very put off by Hannity's ridiculous rhetorical bullying of the guest. As usual, Hannity's misinformation was broadcast to millions of viewers in the U.S. and around the world. Unfortunately, being a conservative on Fox means rarely having to say you're sorry, and given his past record on such matters and his general lack of class, it's unlikely Hannity will ever make any effort to correct the record, unless confronted with it by another guest at some future date.

[1] Hannity engaged in personal attacks throughout Newdow's appearance, one of them related to Newdow's insistence that Madison repudiated congressional chaplains:  "...you keep making it up. I don't take you as a source, 'cause you've been inaccurate in a lot of things." Newdow could have just as easily challenged Hannity on the same grounds--Hannity's recently-published book "Let Freedom Ring" is riddled with errors:  http://www.spinsanity.org/columns/20020826.html

[2] The rest of the portion of the detached memoranda dealing with congressional chaplains and many other church/state issues can be found here:  https://classicliberal.tripod.com/madison/detached4.html

[A follow up story...]

Friday, Sept. 6, 2002

Regarding Wednesday's article on the discussion of congressional chaplains on Hannity & Colmes, a few readers have made some effort to "defend" Sean Hannity by noting that James Madison sat on the House committee that appointed the first chaplains for that body. Madison was, indeed, a member of that committee, but this doesn't help Hannity--the House committee was the second to appoint congressional chaplains, following the Senate, and Madison himself was opposed to the appointment. Years later, in a letter to Edward Livingston, he wrote:

"I observe with particular pleasure the view you have taken of the immunity of religion from civil jurisdiction, in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or the public peace. This has always been a favorite principal with me; and it was not with my approbation that the deviation from it took place in congress, when they appointed chaplains, to be paid from the national treasury."[1]

[1] July 10, 1822. The relevant portion of the letter is available here: https://classicliberal.tripod.com/madison/livingston.html