Sunday, January 06, 2013
Point/Counterpoint: American government has always prayed
In our weekly Point/Counterpoint feature, we invite knowledgeable people (usually two) to express their views on a current topic. After reading each other's columns, our guests then write rebuttals on the RoundTable blog, where readers can join in the conversation.
Recent Point/Counterpoint essays
- The current rule is fair, favoring neither side
- Fair trials arise when evidence is available to both sides
- Let's invest in real solutions
From the RoundTable blog
American government has always prayed
Prayer is intricately woven into the very fabric of America. Public prayer and recognition of God in government meetings and by government officials has been a long-established practice, both before and after independence was declared.
In 1774 during the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, delegates voted to open each meeting with prayer. Ten months later, as war raged, these same men would call for a day of fasting and prayer throughout the colonies. The Second Continental Congress began with a prayer service in a Philadelphia church.
On July 9, 1776, just one day after the Declaration of Independence was first read publicly, the delegates voted unanimously for a chaplain of Congress, who immediately took the floor to offer a prayer. The first Senate resolved to hold a church service in St.Paul's chapel immediately following the swearing in of President George Washington.
Opponents of prayer in public meetings often cry that the practice is a violation of the "separation of church and state." But this phrase does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. Rather, Thomas Jefferson used it in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.
However, Jefferson also wrote another letter to William Johnson in 1823 in which he said it is important to "carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed." As president, Jefferson issued a proclamation to decree a day of "thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God" and included a prayer in both of his inaugural addresses.
Whenever James Madison - the father of the Constitution - would speak of an establishment of religion, he always meant it as a reference to the government giving preference to an "established" church, as Great Britain had done with the Church of England, never in reference to God, religious activities or public prayer. In 1853, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary wrote that the framers of the First Amendment "did not intend to prohibit a just expression of religious devotion by the legislators of the nation, even in their public character as legislators."
Clearly the nation's Founders never meant to remove prayer and references to God from the public square. Such a view is a distortion of the First Amendment and a denial of the principles in the nation's birth certificate - the Declaration of Independence.