Today is a federally proclaimed national day of prayer. President Trump will mark it with a prayer service at the White House. It comes shortly after the Kentucky House passed a bill proclaiming “A Day of Prayer for Kentucky’s Students,” one encouraging Kentuckians, “in accordance with their own faith and consciences, to pray, meditate, or otherwise reflect upon the students of this state as well as their teachers, administrators, and schools.”
Such days of prayer have a long history in the United States, beginning in Colonial America. Early presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln declared days of prayer, but so, too, did presidents such as Harry Truman, who, in 1952, signed into law the national day of prayer that we are observing today. Presidents and governors have proclaimed days of prayer for natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and for human-created tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
So days of prayer have long been a part of American society. But given the separation of church and state in the United States, should the government be able to declare a day of prayer?
To answer that question, we need first to understand what Thomas Jefferson meant when he argued there should be a “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. While the phrase is well-known, three other elements of the letter are relevant to the broader question but are usually overlooked.
First, Baptists, the group Jefferson was addressing in his letter, were a persecuted minority in Colonial America, as well as strong advocates for the separation of church and state. Many colonies had state churches (for instance, the Anglican Church in Virginia) supported by public taxation. Those opposed to the state church were often subject to restrictions on their freedom to worship, such as jail time for preaching and for “unlawful” meetings on Sundays, coercion to pay taxes to support the state church and punishments such as imprisonment, dunking and public whipping, (although unlike the four Quakers hanged in Boston, no Baptists appear to have been executed because of their faith).
Baptists and other nonconformists, such as Methodists, took the lead in championing religious liberty and the separation of church and state — perhaps unsurprisingly, since they bore the brunt of the consequences of a state-sponsored church.
Second, the first draft of Jefferson’s letter included language declaring his opposition to government proclamations for days of fasting, prayer or thanksgiving. In the restored draft of that letter, Jefferson argued that because of this wall of separation, he, unlike his presidential predecessors, refrained from “prescribing even occasional performances of devotion.”
Before sending the letter, however, Jefferson consulted with his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, who advised him to delete that “too combative” statement. Some supporters of state-sponsored days of prayer twist Jefferson’s words to make it appear that he supported such use of government authority. But in the very same paragraph that they use to misrepresent Jefferson’s view, Jefferson clearly stated his opposition to proclaiming days of prayer: “I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them.”
Finally, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” language wasn’t actually Jefferson’s language at all. It was first used by Roger Williams in 1644. Many early Puritans envisioned themselves as a “New Israel” and a “Christian commonwealth” in the New World. Williams, though, disagreed strongly with identifying anything but the church as “New Israel.” He proclaimed that freedom of religion and the “wall of separation” of church and state were inherent in the teachings of Jesus (for example, Matthew 13:24-30) and were also essential for an orderly, peaceful and just society. Christians should not promote or support any religious coercion, ministers should have no civil authority, and civil authorities should not be permitted to punish or coerce religious dissenters.
Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, then played a leading role in founding Rhode Island, which was chartered by King Charles II in 1663 with “full liberty in religious concernments.” Rhode Island thus became a refuge for all types of dissenters — believers and nonbelievers.
So where would Williams and Jefferson, advocates of religious liberty, stand on the question of a government-sponsored day of prayer? Both would be against it.
For people living in contemporary America, there are further reasons to object to the idea of a state-sponsored day of prayer. Inaction dressed up like action serves no one. The people of Kentucky would be better served if their government spent more time working to prevent gun violence in schools (or funding public schools) than proclaiming days of prayer for its victims.
Moreover, the Kentucky legislature has already shown a predilection for curbing the government’s role in promoting religion — though only when the theological shoe is on the other foot. Members have repeatedly introduced bills prohibiting sharia law, demonstrating that they understand, at least on some level, the problem with governmental intrusion on personal religious beliefs.
Those sharia bans point to the real problem with the Kentucky legislature: a failure of imagination and a lack of empathy. Baptists in Jefferson’s time fought fiercely against religious persecution because they were subject to it. If the legislators in Kentucky could better understand or care how their fears of religious persecution under sharia law could be felt by non-Christians in their state, perhaps then the Williams and Jefferson “wall of separation” would once again sound like a good idea.
In many ways, the United States lives up to the idea of religious liberty as espoused by Williams and Jefferson. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”), for example, enshrines religious freedom and the separation of church and state into the U.S. Constitution.
So why is it a problem for a president or governor to proclaim a day of prayer? Because it is one small example of the many larger breaches in the wall of separation of church and state that lead to the loss of religious liberty, especially for non-Christian citizens.
While it is true that today we do not find the same type of religious persecution in the United States as occurred in most of Colonial America, our Christian-majority nation sometimes does not live up to the religious liberty championed by Williams and Jefferson. Just ask the people who until 2015 were denied marriage licenses because of religious beliefs against marriage equality. Just ask women who might be denied health care because of religious beliefs against abortion and contraception. Just ask people who resent that their tax dollars are used to support private Christian K-12 schools that exclude students because of their religion or sexual identity (and try to prevent Muslim schools from receiving the same tax benefits), or students in public schools who might be forced to listen to prayers to a Christian God in whom they do not believe or do not worship.
It is sometimes easy to forget that although the United States is a Christian-majority nation, it is not a Christian nation. Just as some white Americans find it difficult to discern white privilege or understand why it is important to say “Black Lives Matter,” so too some Christians living in a Christian-majority nation can find it difficult to understand how religious liberty for all people means that Christianity is not favored by the government.
To paraphrase an old saying, when you are accustomed to religious privilege, religious equality can seem like oppression.