Two news items about religion and civil government caught my attention over the weekend. First, in a 2–1 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., has ruled in favor of two county residents who complained that they were offended at hearing “in Jesus’ name” in a public prayer.
The federal decision upholds a lower court ruling. “Legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in his ruling.
The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State had argued (naturally) that sectarian prayers to any deity violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment offers no such prohibition since it only restricts “Congress” from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” There is no prohibition directed at the states and their counties. In fact, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution at the insistent of the states in order to protect them from federal encroachment. Both the language of the First Amendment and examples of state constitutions support this claim.
Article XIX of North Carolina’s 1776 Constitution reads, “All men have a natural and unalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.” Article XXXII is specifically Christian in stating the following qualifications for public officers in the state: “No person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.” This provision remained in force until 1835 when it was amended by changing the word “Protestant” to “Christian,” and as so amended remained in force until the Constitution of 1868 where North Carolina is described as a “Christian State” (Art. XI, sec. 7). Notice the dates. The religious qualifications are specifically Christian and appear after the ratification of the national Constitution in 1791.
The above arguments are lost on today’s courts, and most Americans are unaware of our nation’s Christian history. But there might be a way of fighting this battle without having to resort to a long drawn out court battle. The simple solution is for any Christian who is called on to open a meeting with prayer to end it with these simple words: “We make this prayer in the Year of our Lord Jesus Christ 2011,” or whatever the year is at the time. If someone objects, pull out a copy of the Constitution and show them that you are only following what the Constitution itself acknowledges. “The Year of our Lord” is part of the Constitution. You can read it just above George Washington’s signature. This is an obvious reference to Jesus because of the use of “Lord” and the dating from the time of Jesus’ birth which is also part of the Constitution: “one thousand, seven hundred and eighty seven.” This date only has significance in relation to the birth of Jesus Christ. Have copies ready to pass out to those in attendance.
This tactic would mute the claim that the United States Government can’t favor Christianity since Jesus is the centerpiece of Christianity, and the Constitution acknowledges this by its recognition of anno domini, A.D., “the year of our Lord.” It’s a logical step to reason that if the Constitution makes a reference to Jesus, even if indirectly, then how is it possible that using Jesus’ name at a government meeting, which claims to follow the Constitution, is unconstitutional?
The second news story was about Gov. Rick Perry’s attendance at a Texas prayer event. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League have criticized Perry for holding the event, which the ADL said “violates the spirit” of his constitutional duty to treat all Texans equally. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Church and State told Hotsheet that Perry is “confused,” saying, “He is the governor of Texas — he is not an official preacher or prayer leader.” In a dig at the Texas moniker, “Don’t mess with Texas,” Lynn summed up his organization’s aversion to Perry’s prayer rally attendance, “My simple message to him is: Don’t mess with the Constitution.” Like two of the judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Lynn is ignorant of what the Constitution actually says. The prohibition is directed at Congress: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .” First, the Governor of Texas is not Congress, and second, Lynn and his organization wants the Supreme Court and lower courts to prohibit the “free exercise” of religion at the state level.
Consider official government documents and government officials who participated in prayer events. On March 16, 1776, “by order of Congress” a “day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer” where people of the nation were called on to “acknowledge the over ruling providence of God” and bewail their “manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness” (see here).
Congress set aside December 18, 1777 as a day of thanksgiving so the American people “may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor”1 and on which they might “join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.” Congress also recommended that Americans petition God “to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consists in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost” (see here).
When John Hancock was Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he issued “A Proclamation for a Day of Public Thanksgiving” in 1791:
In consideration of the many undeserved Blessings conferred upon us by GOD, the Father of all Mercies; it becomes us not only in our private and usual devotion, to express our obligations to Him, as well as our dependence upon Him; but also specially to set a part a Day to be employed for this great and important Purpose. . . . And above all, not only to continue to us the enjoyment of our civil Rights and Liberties; but the great and most important Blessing, the Gospel of Jesus Christ: And together with our cordial acknowledgments, I do earnestly recommend, that we may join the penitent confession of our Sins, and implore the further continuance of the Divine Protection, and Blessings of Heaven upon this People; especially that He would be graciously pleased to direct, and prosper the Administration of the Federal Government, and of this, and the other States in the Union—to afford Him further Smiles on our Agriculture and Fisheries, Commerce and Manufactures — To prosper our University and all Seminaries of Learning — To bless the virtuously struggling for the Rights of Men — so that universal Happiness may be Allies of the United States, and to afford his Almighty Aid to all People, who are established in the World; that all may bow to the Scepter of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, and the whole Earth be filled with his Glory.
Above Hancock’s signature, the following is found: “Given at the Council-Chamber, in Boston, the fifth Day of October, in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-One, and in the sixteenth Year of the Independence of the United States of America.
George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation also concludes with “in the Year of Our Lord.” The Emancipation Proclamation ends with these words: “Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.”
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln called the nation to repentance, confession of national sins, and turning back to God, the same items that were part of the Texas Prayer Rally. Lincoln’s Proclamation begins with these words:
“Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of the Almighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations has by a resolution requested the president to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation. And whereas, 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: and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
The National Day of Prayer Taskforce notes that “each year, the president signs a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day. Last year, all 50 state governors plus the governors of several U.S. territories signed similar proclamations.” President Obama said the following in recognition of the 2011 National Day of Prayer: “Prayer has played an important role in the American story and in shaping our Nation’s leaders. President Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for the day.’ . . . [F]rom the earliest years of our country’s history, Congress and Presidents have set aside days to recognize the role prayer has played in so many definitive moments in our history.”
If calls for national prayer are good enough for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other presidents, then I don’t see why it’s not good enough for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
- In another context, “divine benefactor” would be viewed as a deist ascription to an unnamed deity. It’s obvious that in this context the Christian God is in view. [↩]