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The Year of Our Lord: Christian Phrase Still Used on State Documents

5 years ago
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A few days ago, I got curious about the wording of those proclamations issued by several state governors announcing Confederate History Month. (Mostly, I wondered why a patriotic current citizen of the United States of America would want to celebrate what were unarguably the deadliest traitors in our nation's history.)

As I found examples of the proclamations online, I was struck by some of what I'd consider the "boilerplate," the way the date of issuance is described. Here's how the governor of Georgia did it:

"In witness thereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the Executive Department to be affixed this 1st day of December in the year of our Lord two thousand nine."

I found the same wording, basically, for Mississippi. What struck me? Whose Lord, exactly, are they referring to? In 2010, there's a 100 percent chance that there is no state where every citizen would answer "Jesus Christ."

This language wasn't a peculiarity associated with the Confederate history proclamations for those two states. When I rooted around to find other proclamations in Georgia and Mississippi, I found the same wording.

Was this a Southern thing? Not so much. I looked at proclamations from Texas, South Carolina and Alabama and the dates did not have the religious appendage.

I realize this wording was once widely, if sporadically, used in America.

The Declaration of Independence does not include the religious language, going simply with: "In Congress, July 4, 1776."

But there's that reference in Article VII of the U.S. Constitution: "Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth." (Interesting that this includes both the religiously linked dating and the utterly secular age of the nation itself.)

Some four score and seven years later, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is dated "on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three."

And just a couple of weeks ago, Barack Obama ended his proclamation for National Park Week with: "IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of April, in the year of our Lord two thousand ten, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth."

Even today, people who may not know it are making reference to that same phrase any time they add "AD" to a date. After all, the Latin "anno domini" means nothing but "year of the Lord." (Which is why some people replace AD with CE for "common era.")

But lots of customs common to Americans a couple of centuries back have waned in the ensuing years. Take slavery, for instance. And bleeding as a primary medical therapy. Why has this one survived in a couple of places?

Mississippi may well be the most Christian state in the Union. The 1997 Religious Landscape Survey by the folks at Pew says that about 92 percent of the population self-identifies as some kind of Christian. But that still leaves about 8 percent that don't. Georgia's non-Christian component in that survey hits about 15 percent.

I asked the press office for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue why that state retains the old wording. Bert Brantley, the governor's communications director, replied:

"I don't know if I can point to a particular reason, other than tradition. We have continued the tradition of using that boilerplate language that the state and previous Governors have used."

Anybody ever complain?

"To my knowledge the issue has never come up, and I've been here three and a half years."

There could be a Constitutional question here. This is not like "In God We Trust," which courts have ruled is not promoting any specific religion. "Year of our Lord" is as Christian as a crucifix. Does the exclusive use of that language constitute a government endorsement of Christianity?

I asked Bruce Murray, author of "Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective," if this is an issue.

"My sense of this is, if a state legislature, school board or city council passed a law requiring official documents to be signed this way (a change from a previous policy), they could/might be clipped for passing a law 'respecting an establishment of religion'; but existing documents and policies are left alone or grandfathered in."

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh addressed the question last month in a blog post about a controversy at Trinity University in San Antonio about the use of "year of our Lord" on diplomas:

" 'The Year of our Lord' in a date is about as religious as Providence, Rhode Island, or Corpus Christi, Texas. The meaning no doubt stems from Christianity, as so much in our culture stems from Christianity. Yet all the terms have acquired secular meaning, and using them does not require belief in the theology from which the terms originally stemmed."

Is that a position that Christians really want to go with? That time and usage have made references to Jesus Christ meaningless? (I'm just asking.)

Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote about the Trinity University controversy for the Christian Post . Yes, "year of our Lord" has become secularized, he said. But there's no way to really divide our common dating system from Christianity:

"Thus, even when modern secularists try to change the language and dating customs from 'A.D.' to 'C.E.,' for 'common era,' the date itself remains fixed with reference to the birth of Jesus Christ. Instead of 'B.C.' for 'before Christ,' these new agents of 'tolerance' prefer 'B.C.E.,' for 'before common era.' But, once again, this does nothing to remove the fact that the number of the year points directly to the assumed date of the birth of Christ."

True, dat.

I pinged the Anti-Defamation League, an outfit that often tracks such things. The response: "With regard to your question below, we would in fact view those references as a historical artifact with no real impact."

How about the American Civil Liberties Union? "Unfortunately, we don't have much information on this, and haven't engaged enough on this issue to have a position."

Rabbi Joshua Lesser may be a bit closer to the action on this issue than those national organizations. He's the spiritual leader for Congregation Bet Haverim and the current president of Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta, a broadly based interfaith organization.

I asked him if the distinctively Christian dating of Georgia's proclamations had ever given anybody pause. His reply:

"Yes, I think it is an issue, but a smaller one compared to others. The real issue is that to bring up anything like this is to hear from the majority religion here in Georgia that their way of life is under assault. While that used to upset me and seem insensitive and triumphalistic, I have to recognize the fear and hurt that it comes from.

"Without stronger relationships, pointing out the inappropriateness of that language in our state legal system only adds to the growing divide. I would rather figure out where we have common ground so that the difficult conversations can be had with respect and a desire for mutual listening."

That explanation seemed a bit, well, passive to me. If he thinks it's wrong, should he have spoken out?

"I think we have to choose which areas are truly worth pursuing and which areas we must let go," he said. "I am more interested in addressing areas of quality of life and impositions created by the majority faith's perspective, like the inability in some courtrooms to wear a hijab or a yarmulke."
Filed Under: Religion, Culture, Ethics
Tagged: church-state
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The reason the Declaration of Independence doesn't contain the religious language regarding dates is because of its author: Thomas Jefferson, who was explicitly anti-Christian.

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

May 30 2010 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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