Congress has proclaimed that the first Thursday in May — May 1, this year — is set aside as a National Day of Prayer. There will be a National Prayer Breakfast and similar state celebrations conspicuously attended by elected officials, politicians and sectarian persons.
Should Congress and state officials be promoting prayer at all? According to the Constitution, No!
The First Amendment guarantees two things: (1) that Congress will not prohibit the free exercise of religion; and (2) that Congress will make no law respecting an establishment of religion. These two clauses embody the wall separating church and state, a wall that is supposed to keep government out of religion, period.
Why, then, did Congress create in 1952, and then codify in 1988, a “national” day of prayer? If you answered because: “True to the intentions of the Constitution’s framers, America is Christian Nation,” you’d be wrong. Indeed, creating any kind of a religious nation, Christian or otherwise, is exactly what the framers were trying to avoid when they drafted the First Amendment. And for good reason.
At the time the First Amendment was adopted there actually were official state churches held over from colonial times; people were prosecuted and imprisoned for their religious practices and public statements at odds with those of the official or prevailing local religious views; Jews and Muslims were demonized and persecuted; Christians often violently disagreed over Biblical interpretation, religious doctrine and practice. Each sect had its own lock on the truth.
Tolerance for all
In that historical context, and based on the views of men like Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, John Leland, George Washington, and James Madison, the First Amendment religion clauses were drafted to guarantee freedom of belief and tolerance for all religions, and to keep government out of that mix. Importantly, there is not one mention of God, Jesus, Christ, Christianity or prayer in the religion clauses. There are only two references to “religion” in the Constitution — one in the First Amendment and another in Article VI banning any religious test for public office.
Indeed, the “Christian Nation” concept first came into existence during the Civil War, largely conceived and perpetuated by Northern ministers who, when the war was going badly, announced that Northern defeats were God’s punishment for ignoring God in the Constitution. But, when the tide of war shifted, these same ministers then proclaimed that God was rewarding the spiritually upright side of the conflict. Thus, America being founded as a “Christian Nation” is fiction — and, worse, exactly contrary to what the framers were trying to negate in the First Amendment.
Besides violating the principle of separation of church and state, what’s wrong with a national (or state) day of prayer?
Right to pray protected
First, Americans don’t need a Congressional proclamation to tell them to pray — they already have a personal, constitutional right to pray — or not to pray — as they (not the government) see fit. Second, government is not permitted to be in the business of telling people whether to pray, when to pray or who to pray to. Third, the national day of prayer has become a vehicle for spreading religious misinformation and fundamentalist Christian doctrine under the aegis of the government, again precisely what the framers were seeking to prohibit.
Come May 1, pray or don’t pray — not in response to a congressional proclamation, but because you have a Constitutional right to do either. If you choose to pray, you may want to ask that our elected officials begin to honor the letter and spirit of the First Amendment and respect the separation of church and state.
After all, each previously swore an oath to do just that.
Jim Nelson of Helena is a retired Montana Supreme Court justice.