Question: Should our elected political leaders pray, and call for the nation to pray, or is that a violation of “separation of church and state?”
This seemingly endless debate in modern America has erupted once again as Vice President Mike Pence, in his capacity as leader of the federal government’s Coronavirus Task Force, called the nation to pray for wisdom for the task force and for the task force to be enabled to protect the U.S. from grievous harm from a potential pandemic.
At first I had decided to just ignore the snickering and mockery with which he was immediately bombarded, and instead to pray for his critics.
However, I was moved to respond as I continued to read eruptions of ignorance and bias scattered across the “twitter-sphere.” The final straw was when I read a tweet attached to a picture of Vice President Pence and the assembled task force’s scientists with their heads bowed in prayer. The tweet dripped with sarcasm, mockery, and anti-religious prejudice. The general twitter theme seemed to be that scientists praying mean they really weren’t being “scientific” and that the Vice President, a devoutly religious man, was somehow therefore disqualified to lead the task force. Sadly, “scientism” is still flourishing in America.
America’s political leaders have a long tradition of praying and calling the nation to pray in times of crisis and national peril. Our Puritan forefathers did both with eloquence and regularity throughout the colonial era.
When our forefathers led the American Revolution in the 18th century, they sought divine guidance and called upon the people to ask God to provide wisdom and deliverance from British oppression. Most Americans have historically believed that God answered their prayers and gave them the incomparable United States Constitution, the greatest self-governing document yet produced on this planet, protecting both the divinely endowed right to “life” and “liberty” (as the Declaration put it).
Furthermore, American history since the founding of the Republic has been replete with stirring and inspiring examples of American political leaders calling for divine guidance and the blessings of Providence on our nation.
Examples from three of our most iconic presidents, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, representing the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, serve to illustrate this truth. In the first few months of his presidency, our nation’s first president, George Washington, issued a proclamation on October 3, 1789, establishing a National Day of Thanksgiving. Citing the action of the first U.S. Congress, Washington decreed:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
The president then established the first Thanksgiving under the new U.S. federal Constitution through the issuance of a presidential proclamation that called upon Americans, among other things, to:
unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplication to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
President Lincoln often called the nation to prayer during the many crisis points of the Civil War. As he experienced the terrible slaughter of brother against brother for four long years, he was driven to his knees in prayer to sustain him. Lincoln’s personal papers show that he became a much more spiritually sensitive man during his presidency. This is illustrated in the stirring conclusion to his Second Inaugural Address.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
In the midst of one of the climactic moments of the Second World War, D-Day, June 6, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed an anxious nation through a national radio broadcast. Speaking to the nation on the very night of the Normandy landing, he concluded his address by sharing a prayer he had written that afternoon as he then led the nation to “the throne of grace.”
And so, Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. . . . We know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
And then President Roosevelt turned his focus to the people listening intently on radios all across the country.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas — whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. . . . Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace, . . . a peace that will let all men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil. Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.
We have been a religious people, and we have been a praying people. And it cannot be expressed too strongly that these elected leaders prayed, not by government mandate or coercion, but because they were religious people speaking to their God and their fellow Americans in times of great crisis. These leaders prayed according to the dictates of their own consciences, and the people were free to heed and follow the example of their elected leaders or not, according to the dictates of their own consciences.
Consequently, there is no violation of the First Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .”
When America’s elected political leaders pray and seek divine guidance, and when their fellow Americans follow their example and similarly pray according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are doing something which is very, very American.
Disagree with them if you wish. Don’t pray if you don’t feel so inclined. Mocking our elected leaders who do pray and your fellow Americans who do as well seems ill- advised, ill-mannered, counter-productive, and unkind. It also ignores an American tradition that pre-dates the Republic and harkens back to the earliest days of Puritan settlement in North America in the 17th century.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.