Prayer, voting and the “wall of separation between Church and State”

The author examines the concept of prayer as a prelude to voting through the lense of the “wall of separation between Church and State”.

In authoring a “prayer to be recited prior to voting” I struggled with the propriety of such a prayer. As a Jewish American I cherish the “wall of separation between Church and State” that has afforded minority religions the ability to grow and
flourish in this great country. Such a wall of separation would seem to make a prayer associated with voting inappropriate.

Such an assumption is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment and the “wall of separation between Church and State” as a metaphor for the religious freedoms guaranteed in our constitution.

Minority religions in the United States have much to be grateful for. The First Amendment contains what is commonly known as the “Establishment Clause.” It protects our freedom of religious practice together with the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and petition of grievances. The exact wording of the First Amendment is as follows.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As a result of the First Amendment, diversity is the best way to describe the religious character of the United States. Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs live side by side with each other and those who chose to practice no religion at all.

We have flourished together because of the “wall of separation between Church and State.” We have come to cherish this wall of separation as it has protected and nurtured us. We have also deified the wall and forgotten that it is simply a metaphor for the religious freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.

The term “separation between Church and State” comes from a letter that the 3rd U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. Jefferson writes as follows.

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

It is important to note that the Danbury Baptist Assembly was a minority denomination that feared the newly formed government would establish a state religion, as it had done in England. As a minority denomination they feared that
their minority views would be trampled, and they themselves subject to further
persecution. President Jefferson used the words “wall of separation between Church and State” to assure them that their church would remain unfettered by government.

The wall of separation is a one-way street. It prevents government from infringing on the rights and freedoms of the individual by government. Such a wall does not preclude the individual from expressing his or her religious beliefs even as they relate to government.

In the very same letter (Jefferson to Danbury Baptist Association 1802) Jefferson, as president writes “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man”.

On March 4, 1805, President Jefferson offered the following National Prayer for Peace, which called upon God to bless our young nation in the name of God:  “Almighty God, Who has given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honorable ministry, sound learning, and pure manners…. Endow with Thy spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen”

Notice the prayer closes with the words “through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen”. The author of the words “wall of separation between Church and State” felt it appropriate for the Christian president of the United States to express himself as a Christian. Perhaps he could have chosen his words better; perhaps he could have spoken in first-person and personal possessive. The words "all of which I ask
through Jesus Christ my Lord" would have been truer to his espoused philosophy
on government and religion.

This being said, President Jefferson had no problem expressing himself as a Christian even when such expressions related directly to government.

We can understand from President Jefferson’s actions and writings that he firmly believed in the religious freedoms established by the First Amendment. President Jefferson also believed in the individual’s right to express his or her religious beliefs even as they relate to government as a government official.

As American Jews we are compelled to participate in the democratic process.  This concept was articulated by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who wrote “A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov -- recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which safeguards the freedoms we enjoy.” 

It is most appropriate that we pray that the outcome of the Democratic process serve the best interest of this country and humanity bringing peace and justice to the world. 

A person praying within the context of their personal beliefs exercises their religious freedoms as guaranteed by the First Amendment and illustrated
by the metaphor of “a wall of separation.”  By doing so we celebrate the beauty of our rights and freedoms as established by the visionary actions of our founding fathers.

Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs each praying as they choose is an amazing way to pay tribute to the authors of our religious freedoms.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Doug Indeap November 03, 2012 at 05:27 PM
It is important to distinguish, as you do, between "individual" and "government" speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, in performing their official duties, they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. Take care in quoting the founders about religion, as fakes abound, including the one you attribute to President Jefferson. http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/national-prayer-peace While Jefferson the individual occasionally expressed his views on religion, he refrained as President from issuing official proclamations and such on religion for the very reason he thought the Constitution precluded it.
Rabbi David Ross Senter November 04, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Dear Doug, I am grateful for and humbled by your input. Until reading your post I had been unaware that the authorship of the prayer is controversial. It is widely quoted in the name of Thomas Jefferson in both electronic and print media. After reading your post I searched for either an academic or government source that might substantiate the authorship. I have found neither. As such I will assume that the attribution to Jefferson is questionable at best. Thank you again for bringing this to my attention.


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