Posts Tagged ‘separation of Church and State’

Why a National Day of Prayer?

May 5, 2010

Tomorrow is, as the first Thursday in May has been for a couple of decades, the National Day of Prayer. I’ve noticed a lot more fuss among Conservatives about the day than most years. perhaps because of misleading rumors that President Obama had canceled the observance and because a federal judge had ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, many seem to have been galvanized to promote the day more enthusiastically than usual.

Their enthusiasm puzzles me. Prayer is only meaningful if motivated by sincere belief and intent. If people of sincere, humble belief are already praying, as they presumably do, what purpose a national day of prayer? If it takes the coercion of government declaration to get them to pray, what would be the purpose? How is that not vain prayer? If it is only a suggestion or encouragement to pray, why do we need to waste government time in message legislation or declarations sanctioning certain forms of observance? Are not the various religious organizations perfectly capable of voluntarily organizing to promote a national day of prayer should they deem it necessary? Why should we call upon the government, which conservatives paint as so ineffective, and which they want out of our personal lives, to lead us in prayer? Are presidents and government proclamations so much more effective than pastors, priests, and bishops in convincing people to pray? If it is a harmless gesture, as some supporters suggest, I wonder how they would react to the similarly harmless suggestion in a National Day of No Prayer?

I’m no lawyer. I don’t know that a National Day of Prayer is strictly unconstitutional. But I do believe that it is inconsistent with the core American value of Freedom of Conscience. While some of the Founders and early presidents, including both Washington and Adams, did champion national days of prayer, others—most prominently Jefferson and Madison, among the strongest advocates of Freedom of Conscience and early Republican values—opposed the practice.

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 (Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Rev. Samuel Miller,” The Jefferson Cyclopedia).

Altho’ recommendations only, [National Days of Prayer] imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.

The objections to them are 1. that Govts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms. 2. The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate. 3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. (James Madison, detached memoranda, c. 1817).

Such observances overtly grant government favor to religion and theism over other alternatives. Further, despite some lip service to diversity, the day is, by the National Day of Prayer Task Force’s own admission, inherently sectarian in nature (the purpose includes “Foster unity within the Christian Church,” and “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage,” and otherwise uses language which is specifically Judeo-Christian in nature).

Certainly those who believe in God should pray tomorrow, as on any other day. But we shouldn’t use government to promote our beliefs or to give preference to our religious tradition over others if we truly want the nation to stand for freedom of religion.

Separation of Church and State III: Making a State Incognizant of Religion

September 10, 2009

In order to preserve the freedom of conscience I’ve discussed in my previous posts, we must more rigorously maintain a firm wall of separation between Church and State. I believe the logical first step would be to remove religious invocations from government language, property, and practice. For instance:

The Pledge of Allegiance. I’m skeptical that the Pledge of Allegiance serves any meaningful purpose. Given its statist nature and socialist origin, I am perpetually perplexed that so many conservatives make such a fetish of it. But if the Pledge is to continue to be a significant part of our civic tradition, the reference to God (which is not an original part of the Pledge, but a 1954 insertion as part of the Cold War ideological battle against the explicitly-atheist communist world) should be eliminated. The government has no role making any declaration about whom its citizens may or may not believe their nation is under.

Government Oaths. Government has no place declaring in whose name government oaths should be sworn. Whether oaths of office or in court, those swearing people in should not include “so help you/me God” in the recitation. Individuals swearing those oaths are certainly well within their rights of expression to add personal invocations to the higher power of their choice, should they so chose. But making that invocation part of the administration of the oath is an inappropriate institutionalization of religious belief on the part of the state.

Civic Prayer. Government sponsored events, from Presidential inaugurations and Congressional sessions down to city council meetings and public school activities, should not involve prayer as part of the event. Participants who believe in a higher power have every right—indeed, a duty— to implore that power for wisdom and guidance prior to such events, and in their hearts during the proceedings. But government itself should not be establishing a given standard for belief through prayer as part of government events.

The Ten Commandments. Ten Commandments monuments should likewise be removed from any public property. Private individuals or organizations should have the right to erect religious inscriptions such as the Ten Commandments on their own private property. But government should not be giving endorsement or favor to any particular religious beliefs, and so neither religious inscriptions nor religious codes have any place in courthouses, schools, or (despite the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing government to show religious preference) public parks.

Motto and Currency. Government shouldn’t be making decrees regarding what divinities we may or may not trust. Religious inscriptions have only been used on U.S. money for the last century and a half, and then only intermittently. The idea that we should invoke God on our money, a medium regarding which Christ showed little concern, seems a bit bizarre to me; I find it ironic at best, and profane at worst. The official government motto was only adopted about the same time as the inclusion of God in the Pledge, and for the same reasons; I see no reason that the original de facto motto “E Pluribus Unum,” wouldn’t serve better and more closely represent the attitude of the founders in establishing the nation.

Education. Government operated education should not be concerned with promoting any religious tradition, whether a given tradition is the majority or not. It should not involve prayers, or scripture study for religious education, or the promotion of religious doctrine under the guise of “intelligent design.”

A ban on religious invocation would not mean that there can be nothing related to religion in the government sphere. There is a distinction between religious invocation and religious cultural references. For example, in the Department of Justice building there is a statue representing Lady Justice, a Greco-Roman personification of justice. No one would suggest this is state support of Classical polytheism or a literal invocation to a goddess of justice. The sculpture is a cultural reference to a period of history which strongly resonates with our own. Such cultural references are perfectly within the scope of secular institutions: Moses and Solomon are included in a frieze in the South Courtroom of the Supreme Court, along with Hammurabi, Solon, Confucius, Augustus, Muhammad, Charlemagne, and others representing historical “lawgivers.” The library of the university I attended had inscribed above the foyer “With all thy getting, get understanding.” While this is a biblical passage, it is not an invocation of God, but rather a literary reference relevant to the purpose of a library. A number of cities in Massachusetts and in Utah have statues of historical religious leaders because those particular religious leaders played important roles in the history of those states. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, have no practical relevance to U.S. history, government, or law (the Ten Commandments are hardly the foundation for U.S. law, as some Christian conservatives like to contend; the nation’s jurisprudence owes far more to the Anglo-Saxon folkmoots, Roman legal codification, and the law code of Hammurabi). Their only purpose on public property is to grant a special reverence to one particular religious tradition.

There will, of course, be those who misinterpret the absence of God from government platform as a repudiation of God. This critique is myopic. The absence of positive affirmations of God in our oaths or pledges or currency or buildings would hardly be a denial of the existence of God or a repudiation of religion. It would simply reflect the truth that it is up to us as free individuals to make our own determination about the nature of the divine and to promote those beliefs on their own merits rather than through government support. It would recognize that religion can be a powerful force for good for individuals and society only when religion is spread through personal conviction and not government prescription.

In some ways one might think these items to be somewhat superficial and trivial. Words inscribed on our money or casually recited in a pledge have very little real-world impact on our lives. I don’t think we can discount ways in which these official government appeals and endorsements exert pressure on society to conform—that is, after all, why certain entities have pressed for such appeals and endorsements in the first place. furthermore, the government acknowledgment and sanction of religion which these invocations represent gives government tacit license to further promote, prefer, and define religion in the public sphere. Many groups would like to further intermingle Church and State; the Constitution Party is perhaps most explicit in stating that it’s goal is to “restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations,” and erroneously claiming that “The U.S. Constitution established a Republic rooted in Biblical law,” but many other groups share the same sentiment and desire to infringe upon true freedom of conscience. By drawing a strong line at these seemingly minor transgressions on freedom of conscience, we make it easier to resist the more hazardous infraction: the legislative codification of religious belief and practice.

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  • Separation of Church and State IV: Religious and Moral Legislation

Chris Buttars’ Christmas Demands

December 3, 2008

Since the rest of the Utah blogosphere is abuzz with the news of Chris Buttars’ Christmas buffoonery, I might as well get into the game.

The West Jordan Republican is having a resolution drafted for the 2009 Legislature that he said asks retailers not to “exclude Christmas from your holiday greetings.” Resolutions, of course, cannot be enforced.

Buttars said he is seeking the resolution because he was contacted by several employees of a retailer he declined to name that had been told they couldn’t say “Merry Christmas” to customers.

“We have a war on Christmas,” Buttars said, invoking the battle fought this time of year by conservatives nationwide, including, since 2005, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has said the issue is at the center of the nation’s culture war ( “Buttars says bah to ‘holiday’ greetings,” Deseret News).

Oh, so many buttons. Where to begin? How about the fact that the entire War on Christmas is a complete canard? Or that trying to repair the integrity of Christmas through marketing slogans is oxymoronic? Rob of The Utah Amicus recently noted

…I don’t know of anyone who has been converted to a Christ-like-life by the words, “Christmas Sale.” Although I uphold any person’s freewill to patronize an establishment because they do use the word Christmas in their advertising, or when greeting customers, it is my opinion that the real war is within, and it’s not promoting Christ’s love when we force establishments to use the word Christmas so that we will give them our dollars regardless if they believe in the word, and it’s significance, or not…isn’t turning the words, “Merry Christmas” into a wedge issue to divide us, and forcing its use to insure the exchange of money about as un-Christ-like as it gets ( “Davis County Clipper Partylines—Is there still a war against Christmas?“) ?

Then there is the fact that the U.S. is not a Christian nation as Buttars believes. Not to mention the fact that such legislation is either an infringement on freedom of speech (by pressuring people to change the terminology they choose) or—as a resolution with no enforcement power—is nothing more than message legislation, and thus a pointless waste of legislator time and taxpayer money.

Buttars did it again. Every time you think he can’t get any more ridiculous, he trumps himself. If you were to try to dream up a caricature of the modern conservative, could you outdo him?