Bill Federer recounts importance of morality, faith in governance
Sept 20, 2019
Chief Justice James Kent explained in People v. Ruggles, 1811, what made oaths effective: “In Taylor’s case … the court … said, that Christianity was parcel of the law, and to cast contumelious reproaches upon it, tended to weaken the foundation of moral obligation, and the efficacy (effectiveness) of oaths.”
This view was held by President and Commander-in-Chief George Washington, who stated in his farewell address, Sept. 19, 1796: “Let it simply be asked where is the security for prosperity, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligations desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in the Courts of Justice?”
Yet this is exactly what Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James announced Sept. 17, 2014, that the U.S. Air Force oath need no longer include the mention of God.
James Kent was appointed Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court by New York Governor John Jay in 1804. At that time in early U.S. history, the New York Supreme Court was more influential than the United States Supreme Court. This was due in part because New York City had been the capital of the United States from 1785 to 1790, and it was the largest city in the nation.
From 1793 to 1798, James Kent served as the first professor of law at Columbia College in New York, which was the oldest institution on higher learning in the state, being founded in 1754 as King’s College. Kent is considered the premier jurist in the development of the legal practice in the United States, known for compiling “Commentaries on American Law,” 1826-1830.
Earlier in his career, 1796-1797, James Kent was as a member of New York’s Legislature where he opposed a regulation requiring African-Americans own property before they could vote. Kent was responsible for enunciating what would become the Cherokee doctrine, where American Indian peoples were considered sovereign nations.
After his death, James Kent was elected to the American Hall of Fame, 1900. Named for him are:
- Kent County, Michigan
- Kent City, Michigan
- Chicago-Kent College of Law
- Columbia Law School’s Kent Hall
- Chancellor Kent Professorship at Columbia Law School
- Chancellor Kent Professorship at Yale Law School
A bronze statute of Chancellor James Kent is in the Library of Congress’ Main Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
Chief Justice James Kent wrote in People v. Ruggles, 1811: “In the case of Rex v. Woolston … the court said … whatever strikes at the root of Christianity, tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government. The same doctrine was laid down in the late case of The King v. Williams. … The authorities show that blasphemy against God, and contumelious reproaches and profane ridicule of Christ or the Holy Scriptures … are offenses punishable at common law … because it tends to corrupt the morals of the people, and to destroy good order. … They are treated as affecting the essential interests of civil society. … We stand equally in need, now as formerly, of all the moral discipline, and of those principles of virtue, which help to bind society together. The people of this state, in common with the people of this country , profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice; and to scandalize the author of these doctrines is not only, in a religious point of view, extremely impious, but, even in respect to the obligations due to society, is a gross violation of decency and good order. …”
Chief Justice Kent continued: “Nothing could be more offensive to the virtuous part of the community, or more injurious to the tender morals of the young, than to declare such profanity lawful. To use the words of one of the greatest oracles of human wisdom (Lord Bacon), ‘profane scoffing doth by little and little deface the reverence for religion;’ and who adds, in another place, ‘two principal causes have I ever known of atheism – curious controversies and profane scoffing.’ … Things which corrupt moral sentiment, as obscene actions, prints and writings, and even gross instances of seduction, have, upon the same principle, been held indictable. … The free, equal, and undisturbed, enjoyment of religious opinion … is granted … but to revile, with malicious and blasphemous contempt, the religion professed by almost the whole community, is an abuse of that right. Nor are we bound … to punish indiscriminately the like attacks upon the religion of Mahomet or of the grand Lama … for this plain reason … that we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply ingrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those impostors. …”
Chief Justice Kent stated further: “It is sufficient that the common law checks upon words and actions, dangerous to the public welfare … whose morals have been elevated and inspired with a more enlarged benevolence, by means of the Christian religion. Though the constitution has discarded religious establishments, it does not forbid judicial cognizance of those offenses against religion and morality … punishable because they strike at the root of moral obligation, and weaken the security of the social ties. … The (New York) Constitution … declaring that ‘the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, should for ever thereafter be allowed within this state, to all mankind’ … (was) never meant to withdraw religion in general, and with it the best sanctions of moral and social obligation from all consideration and notice of the law. … To construe it as breaking down the common law barriers against licentious, wanton, and impious attacks upon Christianity itself, would be an enormous perversion of its meaning. The proviso guards the article from such dangerous latitude of construction, when it declares, the ‘the liberty of conscience hereby granted, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness (sexual immorality). …'”
Chief Justice Kent added: “Christianity, in its enlarged sense, as a religion revealed and taught in the Bible, is not unknown to our law. The statute for preventing immorality (Laws, vol. 1. 224. R. S. 675, s. 69, et seq.) consecrates the first day of the week, as holy time, and considers the violation of it as immoral. This was only the continuation, in substance, of a law of the colony which declared, that the profanation of the Lord’s day was ‘the great scandal of the Christian faith.’ The act concerning oaths, (Laws, vol. 1. p. 405., 2 R. S. 407, s. 82) recognizes the common law mode of administering an oath, ‘by laying the hand on and kissing the Gospels. …'”
Chief Justice Kent concluded: “Surely, then, we are bound to conclude, that wicked and malicious words, writings and actions which go to vilify those Gospels, continue, as at common law, to be an offense against the public peace and safety. They are inconsistent with the reverence due to the administration of an oath, and among their other evil consequences, they tend to lessen, in the public mind, its religious sanction.”
Addressing the topic of oaths, President Calvin Coolidge told the Holy Name Society in Washington, D.C., Sept. 21, 1924: “More than six centuries ago … there was much ignorance, much wickedness … the common people appeared to be sunk in hopelessness. … The speech of men was too often profane and vulgar, until the earth rang with the tumult of those who took the name of the Lord in vain. … The foundation of this day was laid in the formation of the Holy Name Society. … It sought to rededicate the minds of the people to a true conception of the sacredness of the name of the Supreme Being. It was an effort to save all reference to the Deity from curses and blasphemy, and to restore the lips of men to reverence and praise. …”
In affirmation of Proverbs 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Coolidge continued: “This is the beginning of a proper conception of ourselves, of our relationship to each other, and our relationship to our Creator. Human nature cannot develop very far without it. The mind does not unfold, the creative faculty does not mature, the spirit does not expand, save under the influence of reverence. … It is only by a correct attitude of mind begun early in youth and carried through maturity that these desired results are likely to be secured. It is along the path of reverence and obedience that the race has reached the goal of freedom, of self-government, of a higher morality, and a more abundant spiritual life. … He who gives license to his tongue only discloses the contents of his own mind. By the excess of his words he proclaims his lack of discipline. …”
Coolidge added: “The worst evil that could be inflicted upon the youth of the land would be to leave them without restraint and completely at the mercy of their own uncontrolled inclinations. Under such conditions education would be impossible, and all orderly development intellectually or morally would be hopeless. I do not need to picture the result. We know too well what weakness and depravity follow when the ordinary processes of discipline are neglected. …”
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President Coolidge continued: “The very first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence asserted that they proposed ‘to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.’ And as they closed that noble document … they again revealed what they believed to be the ultimate source of authority by stating that they were also ‘appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of’ … their ‘intentions.’ When finally our Constitution was adopted, it contained specific provision that the president and members of the Congress and of state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officials, should be qualified for the discharge of their office by oath or affirmation. By the statute law of the United States … such oaths are administered by a solemn appeal to God for help in the keeping of their covenants. …”
Coolidge added: “I scarcely need to refer to the fact that the Houses of Congress, and so as I know the state legislatures, open their daily sessions with prayer. The foundation of our independence and our Government rests upon basic religious convictions. Back of the authority of our laws is the authority of the Supreme Judge of the World, to whom we still appeal for their final justification. …”
Coolidge stated further: “All liberty is individual liberty. … The principle of equality is recognized. It follows inevitably from belief in the brotherhood of man through the fatherhood of God. When once the right of the individual to liberty and equality is admitted, there is no escape from the conclusion that he alone is entitled to the rewards of his own industry. …”
President Coolidge concluded: “It seems to me perfectly plain that the authority of law, the right to equality, liberty and property, under American institutions, have for their foundation reverence for God. If we could imagine that to be swept away, these institutions of our American government could not long survive.”
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