And I don't believe I am alone in my beliefs. The role of religion has always been a difficult juggling act throughout American history. The question of when and how religion can be taken too far (or not far enough) in relation to government was a question even our Founding Fathers wrestled with. And in our modern era the story is no different.
Which bring us to May 6, 2010. Today is, by presidential proclamation, the National Day of Prayer. And as can be expected, the typical pro and con voices of "reason" have emerged to support/lament this time-honored practice of fighting over prayer, more specifically prayer being sanctioned by government officials. And though I tend to oppose the "Christian Nation" crowd on a regular basis, I am choosing to stand with them today. The National Day of Prayer is a good thing and the secularists need to back off. Here's why:
First off, let's travel back a ways to the era of our Founders. Yes, many of them were "Theistic Rationalists," "Unitarians," "Deists," "atheists" or any other "ist" you can think of. However, these same heathens LOVED to pray (it's true). Take, for example, the First Continental Congress. You all know the story. It was suggested that the first official act of business should be to begin with a prayer but when deadlocked over who should give that prayer, Samuel Adams (a pious man to say the least) arose and stated that he was "no bigot, and could hear a Prayer from any gentleman of Piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his Country." Shortly thereafter, Jacob Duché, an Anglican minister, was selected to lead the group in prayer.
Fast forward to the war for independence. One of the first General Orders issued by General Washington required soldiers to adhere to a moral code that included prayer:
The General most earnestly requires, and expects, a due observance of those articles of war, established for the Government of the army, which forbid profane cursing, swearing and drunkeness; And in like manner requires and expects, of all Officers, and Soldiers, not engaged on actual duty, a punctual attendance on divine Service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.And then there is the case of John Hanson, president of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, who, in 1782, issued a proclamation calling for a national day of thanksgiving in which the nation was to "give thanks to God" for their good fortune during the war.
And let us not forget, despite the controversy over whether or not he said "So Help Me God", President George Washington stated in his first inaugural address:
No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.And then there are the numerous Thanksgiving proclamations made by several early presidents, each of which implored the American populace to give thanks to God through prayer. Bottom line: prayer, in whatever form, is as American as apple pie.
Of course not everyone liked the idea of prayer being sanctioned by government. In 1812, John Adams actually lamented his call for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving:
The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has alarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion."And Thomas Jefferson:
-- John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812
Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it. ...civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.And James Madison:
~Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808.
There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive Proclamations of fasts & festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of injunction, or have lost sight of the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms. In this sense, I presume you reserve to the Govt. a right to appoint particular days for religious worship throughout the State, without any penal sanction enforcing the worship.And while most modern presidents have followed suit by declaring national days of prayer (Harry Truman even signed a bill requiring presidents to do just that), some presidents sided with Jefferson. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt spoke up for what Roosevelt called "absolutely nonsectarian public schools." Roosevelt added that it is "not our business to have the Protestant Bible or the Catholic Vulgate or the Talmud read in schools."
~James Madison to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.
Yes, truly the debate over prayer has a long and tedious history. As Diana Butler, author of the controversial book, A People's History of Christianity points out:
When it comes to prayer, Americans love to fight -- and our prayers have driven us apart. Arguing over prayer is an American tradition.And though it's likely that the debate over prayer's role in the halls of government is sure to remain for as long as the stars and stripes continue to fly, I believe it is important for us all to recognize one important fact: whether you favor prayer being intertwined with government or not we must acknowledge its role in American history. Americans are, for the most part, a prayer-loving people. I am reminded of the very first post ever done at my other blog (American Creation) entitled, "Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?" In that post, I pointed out that the story of Washington kneeling in prayer (and made famous by Arnold Frieberg's now infamous painting) is surely a farce. Despite its obvious mythology, fellow blogger Brian Tubbs made an excellent point. He stated, in this blog's first ever comment:
In the 1600s, Puritans rejected the formalized prayer of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and founded their own churches as a way of protesting state-supported prayer. For their trouble, the Anglicans put them in jail. When they got out, they left England and settled in the New World. But the Anglicans were already there with their own colonies and outlawed Puritan prayers again. So the Puritans outlawed Anglican prayer in their own colonies. Quakers, disgusted with the Puritan-Anglican quarrel, rejected verbal prayers altogether, choosing to pray silently instead.
In the 1740s, during the Great Awakening, the new evangelical preachers practiced extemporaneous prayer. They rejected all written prayers in favor of being "moved by the Spirit" and making up public prayers on the spot. Many in traditional churches -- Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Congregationalists -- found extemporaneous prayer to be theologically shallow and "unlearned" and forbade its exercise in their churches. These groups didn't imprison each other over prayer. Instead, they consigned each other to hell and set up rival denominations to insure their own salvation. American churches split over prayer, leaving some to free-form prayer and others to written and ritualized prayers.
After the Revolutionary War, a puzzling question arose: Whose prayer would undergird the new nation? How might prayer be practiced in the commons? What words should bless state functions?
The political leaders (perhaps recognizing that prayer was above their pay grade) came up with a unique and practical answer: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." In other words, "We won't touch that prayer-thing with a twenty-foot pole. You are on your own, people."
Of course, the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the Constitution didn't solve anything. Congress, despite trying to avoid the issue, had chaplains -- most typically of the formal type -- who prayed for their work. And Americans -- even in the early period when most of them were Protestants -- kept arguing over whose prayer was theologically accurate and most spiritually effective. Entire denominations were formed on the basis of devotional style. And as Americans argued and denominations split over prayer, religious leaders and politicians continued to proclaim days of prayer for national unity.
Whether GW knelt in prayer at Valley Forge as depicted by the paintings is like asking whether he stood in the boat when he crossed the Delaware. GW probably didn't kneel in the snow at Valley Forge. But I'm sure he prayed at Valley Forge. That GW prayed in the exact manner depicted in the famous painting may be called into question. That he was a man of prayer cannot be challenged.And so it is with prayer on a national level. Perhaps we are not a Christian Nation and that a separation of church and state does keep the men of the cloth from dictating policy. This truth, however, does not mean that we need to throw the baby out with the bath water. We have been, and probably always will be, a nation of praying people.
And maybe both the pro and anti-prayer advocates can appeal to Jesus for a resolution on this matter:
"Thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men...
"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret." ~ Matt. 6:5-6