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A 'Duty' To Pray?

By: Ben Boychuk
July 9, 1999

American prosperity has reached new heights. But across the nation there is a growing discontent. A rise in social pathologies, punctuated by the mass murder in Littleton, Colorado, has led many to question the moral health of our nation.

To that end, some members in Congress took a modest step last week by calling for a national day of prayer. It was a non-binding resolution, far from carrying the force of law.

It failed by 11 votes. For some First Amendment absolutists, this proposal came perilously close to establishing a state religion.

Most lawmakers who opposed the resolution objected to its language, which declared "it is the necessary duty of the people of this Nation . . . to humbly offer up our prayers and needs to Almighty God" and "it is incumbent on all public bodies, as well as private persons, to revere and rely on God Almighty for our day-to-day existence."

Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, chafed at the word "duty," and denounced the language as unconstitutional. "What right under our Constitution does this Congress have the right to tell any citizen that it is his duty to pray? The answer is, we have no right to do so…. I thank God that Madison and Jefferson were wise enough to realize that the best way to ruin religion is to politicize it," he said.

One might think this is the first time Congress ever considered such a resolution. Actually, it has passed nearly identical resolutions with no controversy at all since the very birth of the Republic. In fact, George Washington's first act as president was to sign a law establishing a national day of thanksgiving and prayer.

And what about Jefferson? Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., used the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty in making his case against the resolution. "Thomas Jefferson opposed any kind of involvement in religion," argued Waxman.

He could not be more wrong. Jefferson is often abused and misinterpreted on this score. Like all of the founders, Jefferson shared a skepticism of a national religion but an unequivocal belief in the need for a moral citizenry.

In fact, the very letter Jefferson wrote as President of the United States that coined the famous phrase about a "wall of separation" ends with a prayer: "I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man."

Congress' resolutions serve as a reminder that "it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon."

That is not language from the current resolution. These are words of Abraham Lincoln, naming a National Fast Day at the behest of Congress in the midst of the Civil War.

Lincoln noted how America had been blessed with "the choicest bounties of Heaven" and "preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity." But, he warned, "may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People?"

"We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown," Lincoln wrote. "But we have forgotten God. . . . Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!"

From Lincoln last century to Franklin Roosevelt in our own. As FDR observed in a letter to the president of the Jewish Education Committee in 1940, "our modern democratic way of life has its deepest roots in our great common religious tradition, which for ages past has taught to civilized mankind the dignity of the human being, his equality before God, and his responsibility in the making of a better and fairer world." 

Yet, a vocal but powerful minority of lawmakers opposes all such talk as state-sponsored religious regimentation. Wouldn't that mean every president and Congress has trammeled upon the First Amendment? This view of the Constitution — approved by the Supreme Court in 1947 — is part of an uninformed war against faith in the public square. It is something America's Founders would never countenance.

The members of Congress who offered up the late resolution belong in the tradition of Washington, Lincoln and, yes, Jefferson. They make the same case as America's Founders: We are all born free and equal under the eyes of God. It was perfectly reasonable two centuries ago and it is perfectly reasonable today. 

The founders understood the vitality brought by faith and the importance of morality to the defense of liberty. The true extremists are those who seek to banish our noblest aspirations as a guide in times of travail and hardship.