One of the blogs I visit frequently is Gordo's Appletree, the link to which appears to the right under my Brothers and Sisters in Disbelief blogroll. Like myself, Gordo is generally liberal in his political and social views, though his blog leans more towards political topics. One of the regular commenters at Appletree is a crusty conservative South Carolinian septaguenarian who goes by the moniker "Bedrocktruth." One of the things that Bedrock (I leave out the "truth" part on purpose!) constantly bewails is how liberals and atheists have destroyed the public expression of religious faith, particularly that of Christianity, in this country.
Anyway, I was looking through my copy of Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder for information to respond to comments Bedrock made on one of Gordo's posts when I came across a little known incident in the history of the separation of church and state in the United States.
While almost everyone in America knows about Mark Sanford, the current governor of South Carolina and his propensity for "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in Buenos Aires (and didn't the bastard catch a lucky break with Michael Jackson's death diverting some of the media attention away from him?), Sanford is not the first controversial governor in that southern state that was first in secession.
James Henry Hammond was born in 1807 into a family of modest means in the best of times. But he evidently grew to become a handsome and dashing young man. He managed quite a coup for himself when he courted and married a plantation heiress in 1831. From there, Hammond became involved in politics and got elected to the House of Representatives. In Congress, he was an ardent defender of slavery, which he described as "the greatest of all the blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our favored region." In the 1840's, he would be elected governor of South Carolina.
In his diary entry dated November 21, 1844, Hammond writes of the following incident:
I announced and set apart the 3rd day of October for Thanksgiving. In my Proclamation I invited the State to worship "God the Creator and His Son Jesus Christ the Redeemer of the World." The Jews of Charleston took great offence, announced themselves greatly displeased at being apparently excluded, and called on me for an explanation through the public papers and by private letter. I informally answered them through Col. Pinckney, Sec. of State, in Charleston that it was an oversight. But they wanted some public notice and apology. They refused to open their Synagogues and finally about the 5th inst. addressed me a long and impertinent Memorial and signed, I presume, by every Jew in Charleston, 110 names. I answered it pretty sharply, refused to make an apology, and defended my Proclamation. I hoped the matter would end there. But they called a meeting, had a report in reply to my letter, and published the whole in yesterday's Charleston papers. My letter badly printed, which I must have corrected up here. This will be a three days talk for the public. But it has drawn on me the everlasting and malignant hostility of the whole tribe of Jews, which is very unpleasant in many ways. Their Report declares that they wish to drop the matter, and so do I. Publicly it will end here, but privately they will be thorns in my side.
So, while people like Bedrock and other conservatives cling to a mythical American past where public expressions of Christianity were the norm until those awful atheists and ACLU people came along and wrecked everything in the 1960's, the episode described by Hammond in his diary shows that even as far back as 1844, in conservative South Carolina nonetheless, religious minorities protested against official government proclamations that favored Christianity to the exclusion of other religions.
The supreme irony in this though is that Hammond, like Mark Sanford, also had a propensity for "hiking the Appalachian Trail," which included making mistresses out of some of his African-American slave girls, as well as debauching several of his own nieces.
Now, though I am an atheist, I don't have any problem with people being Christians, nor do I object to public displays of religious faith. But I should think, and hope, that even many Christians would agree with me that politicians who wear Jesus Christ on their sleeves in public should be regarded with a great deal of skepticism.