Thursday, May 6, 2010

America's National Day of (Fighting Over) Prayer

If you've followed my posts over the past couple of years it should come as no surprise that I absolutely, 100% reject the "America is a Christian Nation" nonsense. My reasons for such a stance are many (and I won't dive into them today) but sufficeth me to say that I believe such as stance is actually quite anti-Christian in nature. With that said, I don't want to be misunderstood here. This does not mean that I believe religion played no role in the founding of America. Quite the contrary. I believe it was (and still is) a fundamental component of American republicanism; one that we cannot and should not do without. Religious freedom and diversity is as important to us as are our separation of powers.

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."

-- John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812
And Thomas Jefferson:
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.

~Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808.
And James Madison:
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.

~James Madison to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.
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."

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.

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.
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 here at 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:
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

21 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Add Andrew Jackson to Jefferson's side below, which I'll plagiarize from the internet out of laziness:


"I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government." --Andrew Jackson- letter to the Synod of the Reformed Church of North America, 12 June 1832, explaining his refusal of their request that he proclaim a "day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer."

As for Jesus speaking of praying in secret, I'm not sure the Bible passage quite applies, since he was referring to hypocrites who made a great show of public piety, not sincere folks. Surely Jesus was not calling for an end to assembled public prayer.

Brad Hart said...

Nice Andrew Jackson quote.

Yeah, I agree with the Jesus stuff. I was mostly looking for a way to conclude my post. It seems "stirring."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Let's add that fasting is pretty Christian in this context and "humiliation" is very Calvinist. Much more sectarian than mere prayer.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, I'm with you that Jesus was not calling for an end to assembled prayers in synagouges or other sacred places of worship, but assembled prayer for the sake of creating a great show of public piety is quite another matter.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jesus would not be comfortable with prayer being bandied about as a political weapon. In that context, Brad's finale was indeed "stirring" and appropriate. :-)

But Tom and Ray are correct that Jesus was not against assembled, corporate prayer. In fact, Judaism had a long tradition of that, and it continued with Christianity.

Brian Tubbs said...

I should also add that even those Founders uncomfortable with government-sanctioned public prayers were still comfortable with (even supportive of) government being grounded in a monotheistic context.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, I was addressing Brad's close on a theological level.

As for the legal thing, I believe the resolution reads

The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating
the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the
people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and
meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.


which doesn't necessarily call for "corporate" prayer.

Individual prayer is given equal standing, and the word "may" means do it or don't according to individual conscience. No, I'm not interested in taking the bait and reopening this, Ray. Neither the Constitution nor the "custom and practice" following its ratification demands we forbid this.

If the president wants to largely ignore it, which I understand President Obama just did, that's OK too, per Jefferson & Jackson.

Ray Soller said...

The fact is that the NDOP proclamation itself is not an optional issue when it comes to current day presidents. President Obama did not have the same option as did Jefferson & Jackson.

It also appears that even though the President did "invite all people of faith to join" him "in asking for God's continued guidance, grace, and protection as we meet the challenges before us," he, in fact, as commander-in-chief, is ultimately responsible for having disinvited Evangelist Franklin Graham, co-honorary chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, from attending the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer event due to Graham's previous comments about Islam.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Franklin Graham is getting really far afield from the Founding now. I agreed with the disinvitation, BTW. I'm all for positives, but downing other faiths is contrary to the spirit of pluralism.

Ray Soller said...

Brad you asserted: The National Day of Prayer is a good thing and the secularists need to back off. Here's why:
... whether you favor prayer being intertwined with government or not we must acknowledge its role in American history.
That's nice to say, but I fail to see how a legislated annual National Day of Prayer is necessarily a good thing when the federal government is involved. Do we really need to have the government legislating those particulars we must acknowledge so we can properly understand our common historical heritage?

K. Hollyn Hollman, General counsel, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in an article, Does the National Day of Prayer Violate Church-State Separation?, put it this way: Even if the National Day of Prayer is not held to be unconstitutional, it is certainly unwise. [my emphasis] Consequently, she concludes her presentation with the proposition: If Congress and the president truly want to promote prayer, they should follow the wise counsel of Jefferson and Madison and keep the government out of it.

It turns out Obama may still come to better appreciate the counsel of Jefferson and Madison when it comes to his recent NDoP proclamation. Time magazine has an interesting article, Will the National Day of Prayer Hurt Obama? by Amy Sullivan. Here's what caught my attention:

A large part of the problem is that the Pentagon outsources the organization of its day of prayer event to the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group run by Shirley Dobson (wife of Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson). The Colorado-based task force is known for making its observance of the day a sectarian affair--it has, for example, prevented Mormons from participating because the task force does not consider them really Christian. It was the task force that chose Graham to be the honorary chair and main speaker for the Pentagon event. It's not crazy to ask why a group that interprets the National Day of Prayer as the National Day of Evangelical Christian Prayer is in charge of organizing a federal agency's observance of the day.[end snippet]

Unfortunately, even in the Pentagon's revised program, which "included prayers from Catholic, Jewish and Muslim chaplains, who were hastily added to the program" there still wasn't any mention of any Mormon involvement.

Brad Hart said...

Well, I have to disagree, Ray. I don't think the NDOP requires anyone to do anything. It's not like the thing becomes a law. Let's face it, public recognition of God goes back to Washington...heck, it goes back even further, assuming you accept the early settlers as a part of America's heritage. If we're going to get rid of the NDOP then we might as well get rid of Thanksgiving.

As for Graham and Dobson's wife, well, I've never been big fans of either. If they are preventing Mormons and other "Christians" from praying the only think I can say is "so what." I'll invoke the words of Samuel Adams in saying that I am "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."

I think the quarrel over which religion is represented at the Pentagon or not misses the main point. Ok, some religions, most religions, are probably going to get the shaft on any given NDOP. And sure, most of the motivation behind this day probably is political, but let's not toss the baby out with the bath water. Religion, prayer, etc. have been fundamental components to American republicanism. It ignore such a fact is to ignore a part of our heritage.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson and Madison. As if there were no other Founders.

Mark David Hall points out in this debate

http://www.isi.org/lectures/lectures.aspx?SBy=lecture&SFor=0e7160cc-5c45-44c7-bb2b-33d6133e8c64


that when the Supreme Court cites the Founders in opinions favoring more secularism, Jefferson & Madison are cited 54% of the time.

Truly amazing, but not so amazing, since that side of the issue has a very thin case outside of those two. Not Washington, not Franklin, not John Adams, none of whom were provably orthodox Christians.


Neither does Madison even fit here! This Day of Prayer is totally consistent with Madison's own words:

"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."

bpabbott said...

Re: " Supreme Court cites the Founders in opinions favoring more secularism, Jefferson & Madison are cited 54% of the time."

The biggest reason for this is that Madison and Jefferson recorded their thoughts on this subject. The writings of these two men on the subject is as vast (if not more so) than that of all the remaining founders combined.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The reason is those two are all they've got, and Madison lost half his battles and didn't bother to fight the other half.

Which leaves Jefferson, Jefferson, Jefferson...

Ray Soller said...

Brad, I think that invoking the "toss the baby out with the bath water" cliche' is a bit extreme in this context. If the NDOP Act is finally ruled unconstitutional, what will be thrown out? As far as I can best determine, the President, if he so desires, can still choose to proclaim a special day of prayer. What's more, the president could (or not) do it multiple times in the year and on any day of the year that suits him.

When I say, "I fail to see how a legislated annual National Day of Prayer is necessarily a good thing when the federal government is involved," I'm talking about congressional bills that require the president's signature so that the bill can become law. The National Day of Prayer Act fits into this category. If you read carefully you should be able to note how Judge Crabb specified that the US law directing the president to proclaim such a day violates the First Amendment, which prohibits government. establishment of religion.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, the only legal directive, I know of, requires the federal government to shut down as best it can and allow federal employees to take a day off.

Explicit Atheist said...

The National Day of Prayer is all about promoting prayer, it is not about recalling or comemorating any historical event.

Some of us think it is in everyone's interest that we all justify our beliefs on the weight of the evidence, that the weight of the evidence is that prayer is ineffective, and that therefore belief in prayer should be discouraged rather than encouraged. Opinion about prayer is a partisan question, there are people who support it and don't support it just like there are people who support and oppose belief in the Trinity, etc. The problem here is government taking sides on such a partisan question that do not directly address issues of governing, thereby implying that citizens who pray are preferred by our government over those citizens who oppose prayer.

bpabbott said...

Re: "It's not like the thing becomes a law."

There is an important difference between the observance of a day of prayer during the founding, and that we see today..

Since 1952, law does formalize the observance of the NDOP.

While there is essentially no direct impact on anyone's liberty, and I am happy to ignore it, I am of the opinion that it violates the establishment clause.

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J.M. Shaw said...

Here is the introduction of the FFRF v Obama decision:

“The role that prayer should play in public life has been a matter of intense debate in
this country since its founding. When the Continental Congress met for its inaugural session in September 1774, delegate Thomas Cushing proposed to open the session with a prayer. Delegates John Jay and John Rutledge (two future Chief Justices of the Supreme Court) objected to the proposal on the ground that the Congress was “so divided in religious Sentiments . . . that We could not join in the same Act of Worship.” Eventually, Samuel Adams convinced the other delegates to allow the reading of a psalm the following day. The debate continued during the constitutional Convention (which did not include prayer)and the terms of Presidents such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, each of whom held different views about public prayer under the establishment clause. It continues today.”

But whether one is for or against a National Day of Prayer today has little or nothing to do with what the founders thought or did. For those who object, the problem stems from the legislative history of the bill. Judge Crabb’s ruling traced the history to a 1952 crusade/rally in Washington DC by the Rev. Billy Graham, in which he called for a national day of prayer and envisioned a "great spiritual awakening" for the capital with "thousands coming to Jesus Christ."

Doesn’t that veer towards "establishment”?

It was introduced in the House the next day, then later in the Senate as a measure against the "corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based."

In 1988, at the urging of Campus Crusade for Christ and the National Day of Prayer committee, Congress enacted legislation requiring the president to issue an annual proclamation declaring the first Thursday in May as National Prayer Day.

The anti-communist (anti-atheist) role of evangelical Christians in the creation of the law and the shaping of the annual proclamations has raised concern among many non-Christians, according to a litany of cases cited in Crabb's ruling.

What happened to “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?” Congress has no constitutional role or authority to “make” such a law.

Recall Jefferson’s aphorism: “We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country.”

Yes one can trace prayers in Congress or presidential proclamations dating to before and after 1787. But why should Americans today be subjected to a law derived from Congress’s emotive anti-communist grand-standing during the 1950s and the “third great awakening” of the 1980s? It’s a good example of yours and Jesus’s invocation of "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… .”