Public Prayer and the Founding Fathers

Even as Tea Party activists clamor for a return to the nation's religious roots, secularists seem to be pushing forward with an effort to eliminate all religion from American public life. This time, their target is the town council of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. The American Civil Liberties Union earlier threatened the council with a lawsuit for uttering the Lord's Prayer at its meetings, but they temporarily dropped the action when the council agreed to begin offering prayers on a rotating basis instead. But last week, when it became evident that those prayers still sometimes included the Lord's Prayer, the lawsuit was back on.

This effort to silence public prayer is unfortunate, as it denies the vital, historic role of religion in American life, and it attempts to have the government restrict both our religious freedom and particular kinds of speech. Ironically, such secularizing efforts are largely to thank for the backlash that has led some conservatives to insist that America is an exclusively "Christian nation."

But not all the news is bad: in October, the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago decided, correctly, to uphold an Illinois state law that allows a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day. The statute's defenders said that it served the secular purpose of helping students to settle down and reflect on their day. Students could use the time to be quiet, to think, or to pray. The religious component of the statute elicited a predictable lawsuit from secularists arguing that such a modest accommodation of faith represented an "establishment of religion," in the words of the First Amendment.

How did we get to the point where, according to secularist activists, even the smallest vestige of religion has to be expunged from the public sphere? The Founders of our country would have been absolutely perplexed at this turn of events. Yes, there was a wide variety of personal faiths in the era of the American Revolution. America was founded as a "Christian nation" only in the sense that most of the Founders were at least nominal Christians, and Christian principles such as equality by creation undergirded the ideals of the Revolution. But this religious grounding hardly meant religious uniformity, and Founders such as Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin resisted any sectarian or exclusively Christian basis for the new nation. They believed in real religious liberty for all. Yet across the theological spectrum, from deists to Christian evangelicals, the Founding Fathers agreed on the importance of religion in the life of the republic. They saw faith and morality as "indispensable supports" to the health of the republic, as George Washington put it in his 1796 Farewell Address.

Public prayer was a constant feature of the early government of the United States. Congress hired chaplains to offer prayers during their sessions (an entanglement that radical secularists still lament), and regularly issued proclamations for days of public prayer. In 1777 the Continental Congress appointed a day of prayer and summoned Americans to "penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . and humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot [their transgressions] out of remembrance."

In October 1789, George Washington followed longstanding precedent by proclaiming the first day of national thanksgiving and prayer under the new Constitution. Likewise, John Adams issued a declaration for a national fast in 1798 and called on citizens to ask God, "through the Redeemer of the world, freely to remit all our offences, and to incline us, by his Holy Spirit, to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor." We could go on with many more examples, but the point is this: the Founders assumed that religion, including prayer, would have a strong public presence in America.

So they would have been mystified by an appeals court seriously considering the notion that offering students the possibility of a time of prayer -- or silence, if they so choose -- represents an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Moreover, they would have been shocked by secularist attacks on public recitation of the Lord's Prayer (even with that prayer's relatively non-sectarian overtones), as an unacceptable government indulgence of faith. Curtailing every government accommodation of religion was certainly not what the Founders had in mind when they spoke of the free exercise of religion, preventing establishments of religion, or separating church and state.

The Faith in History column is published every second Monday.