McDonnell's Jeffersonian decision on public prayer

By Thomas Kidd
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's recent decision to lift a ban on police chaplains referring to Jesus Christ in public prayers honors the state's Jeffersonian tradition of religious liberty.

The original 2008 decision forbidding mention of Jesus came in reaction to a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that prohibited prayers "in Jesus's name" at public events. The court's ruling was an unwarranted intrusion into Americans' religious freedom, and it certainly was not the kind of restriction that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he drafted Virginia's Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), or even when he wrote of a "wall of separation" between church and state. Jefferson and the other Founders meant to keep the government out of religion's business, not to drive specific, "sectarian" religion out of the public sphere.

When Jefferson wrote to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists in 1802 that the First Amendment represented a "wall of separation" between church and state, what did he mean? An elimination of religion from the state sphere? That is clearly not the case, given that Jefferson routinely permitted and attended church services in government buildings, and the speakers were never expected to limit their speech to vague platitudes about the deity. It is true that Jefferson himself held liberal and even heretical views on Christianity, and that he preferred not to call for national days of prayer and fasting, unlike his presidential predecessors George Washington and John Adams. But, in general, Jefferson was quite comfortable with a public role for religion. Jefferson did not hold the same view of Jesus as most of the preachers of the day, but he thought the recognition of the country's religion was important for the health of the republic.

What Jefferson opposed was the situation faced by his Baptist correspondents in Connecticut: a state-funded church that historically created hardships and disadvantages for dissenters such as the evangelical Baptists. Traditionally, even those outside the established Congregationalist churches of New England had to pay taxes to support the state church. Although these kinds of religious burdens lifted considerably after the Revolution, Connecticut and Massachusetts kept a form of state-sponsored churches well into the 19th century. (The First Amendment's ban on religious establishments did not necessarily apply to the states until the adoption of 14th Amendment in 1868.) This is the kind of establishment that Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists feared. The wall of separation in the First Amendment, to Jefferson, banned a national establishment of religion, prevented the government from punishing people for their beliefs and maximized religious freedom.

By Jefferson's standards, McDonnell is on solid ground in permitting chaplains to use Jesus's name. The chaplains certainly do not have to say Jesus's name. Obviously, Jewish or Muslim chaplains would not pray in his name, and they are also free to pray in ways specific to their faiths. Christians in an audience for prayers by Jewish or Muslim chaplains should likewise listen respectfully and join in the prayer, or not, as their consciences dictate. Perhaps on some occasions, the propriety of speaking before diverse audiences would lead Christian chaplains not to mention Jesus and to offer prayers that people of other faiths can accept more readily. But it is quite another thing for the government to require this kind of all-purpose prayer. Doing so invades the freedom of conscience of the chaplains.

There is great danger in the government forbidding a Christian chaplain, or chaplains of other faiths, from mentioning the name of their God in specific terms. The government should never police speech in this manner in any case, and we should afford even higher protection to religion, which is singled out as an especially precious freedom in the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit thinks that the government can require citizens to utter only vague speech about religion in public. This policy ironically makes a kind of vacuous civil religion -- prayers that say nothing specific about God or his attributes -- the preferred religion of the state, and this, too, is dangerous territory, because the government should never dictate religion to clerics or faith communities.

McDonnell should be commended for maintaining Virginia's historic commitment to real religious liberty.

Thomas S. Kidd is a senior fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author of "The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America."

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