If the U.S. truly stands as a country dedicated to the concept of the separation of religion and government, as articulated by the First Amendment, why then do presidential inaugurals include invocations and benedictions (supplications or prayers to God that are given at the beginning and close of religious services)?
Why do government swearing-in ceremonies require placing hands upon a Bible and a pledge in the name of “almighty God?” Furthermore, why do we hire chaplains to deliver prayers at the daily openings of Congressional sessions, all paid for by public tax dollars?
Many people who are asked to place their left hand on religious texts while raising their right hand to “tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God,” are in this very act, committing perjury if they don’t believe in a god or follow the book over which they are pledging.
Founding father James Madison argued against the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress, writing, “The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes.”
“The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles,” he wrote.
While I respect Biden’s decision to practice his Catholic faith, which he holds dear, I had hoped he would set a new precedent by keeping religion out of his inaugural ceremonies as a measure to begin repairing the wall of separation between religion and government.
Although it was uplifting and compassionate, in his benediction address at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Reverend Dr. Sylvester Beaman invoked the name of God four times. Biden himself said “God” four times in his speech and talked about what “the Bible says” before quoting a verse.
Biden is certainly not unique. A majority of presidents, 27 out of the previous 45, cited the Bible during their inaugural addresses.
At Biden’s inauguration ceremonies, in addition to the official speech and benediction, God came up several times including in song and anthems and in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Former President Barack Obama tapped the Rev. Louie Giglio of Atlanta’s Passion City Church to deliver the benediction during his second inauguration. Less than 48 hours later with the controversy surrounding Giglio’s past statements about homosexuality, however, Giglio decided to withdraw from giving the address stating, “It is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda a focal point of the inauguration.”
During his sermon “In Search of a Standard Christian Response to Homosexuality,” delivered a decade earlier, Giglio told his parishioners that being gay is a sinful “choice” and that gay people will be prevented from “entering the Kingdom of God.” The “only way out of a homosexual lifestyle … is through the healing power of Jesus,” he continued.
At his first inauguration, Barack Obama chose evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. Warren invoked the name of Jesus during his invocation and closed by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Warren has been a leading and outspoken opponent of LGBTQ equality. He worked as one of the chief lobbyists for the passage of Proposition 8 in California delegitimizing marriage for same-sex couples. In his public statements, he likened marriage for same-sex couples to incestuous marriage between a brother and sister and to polygamy.
In November 2012, Warren went further by telling CNN’s Piers Morgan that being gay is a bit like eating arsenic or “punching a guy in the nose.” In addition, Warren has called into question the concept of separation of religion and government and said that Obama “intentionally infringed upon religious liberties” with his contraception mandates.
Six clergies offered prayers and Biblical readings atop the balcony of the U.S. Capitol as former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence placing their left hands on a stack of Bibles during their swearing-in ceremonies. And ending the festivities, sounds emanated from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Clergy invited to read and offer prayer at the inauguration included five Christians and one Jew.
As I watched the proceedings on TV, I questioned whether I was viewing a presidential swearing-in or, rather, attending an evangelical tent revival as clergy invoked the name of Jesus at least eight times. Trump brought up God four times during his speech.
Not wanting to exclude Muslins, he said in usual Trump fashion, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones — and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
National Day of Prayer
Trump officially proclaimed a National Day of Prayer to commemorate the devastation to life and property caused by Hurricane Harvey. The day before, while visiting with sufferers of the storm’s wrath, Trump said that “Tomorrow’s a very big day, so go to your church and pray and enjoy the day.”
Whatever happened to the alleged wall separating religion and government? While the courts have attempted to reinforce this partition, our presidents have continually attempted to tear it down.
Though Trump’s order created an ad hoc National Day of Prayer, in April 2010, Judge Barbara Crabb of the U.S. District Court in Wisconsin ruled that the annual National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional by violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause. In her ruling, Judge Crabb stated, “It goes beyond mere ‘acknowledgment’ of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context.”
She added that no law prevents people in the United States from praying or from creating non-governmental days of prayer, concluding, “I understand that many may disagree with that conclusion and some may even view it as a criticism of prayer or those who pray. That is unfortunate. A determination that the government may not endorse a religious message is not a determination that the message itself is harmful, unimportant or undeserving of dissemination.”
Congress established The National Day of Prayer during the Cold War in 1952 and added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. “In God We Trust” was added to U.S. coins during the Civil War and to paper money in 1956.
In 1988, Congress set the annual National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May. Then-President Obama, under whose presidency the court declared it unconstitutional, chose to ignore the ruling by issuing a proclamation beginning, “Throughout our Nation’s history, Americans have come together in moments of great challenge and uncertainty to humble themselves in prayer.”
Separation of Religion and Government?
Madison, familiarly called the “Father of the Constitution,” was most responsible for the First Amendment along with Thomas Jefferson. Virginia was one of the first states following the Revolutionary War to address the issue of religion and government when Thomas Jefferson, who held deist beliefs, drafted “An Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom” in 1777. Jefferson’s proposal passed into law in 1786 in Virginia.
Then, constitutional framers such as Jefferson and Madison negotiated a compromise with Protestant sectarians, which led to the clause written into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
Though nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does the phrase “separation of church and state” appear, it was originally drawn from a letter then-President Thomas Jefferson sent to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists Association. Jefferson held deep concerns over the possibility of an erosion of the First Amendment’s religious freedoms, as did Madison.
In his “Letter to Edward Livingston,” July 10, 1822, Madison opined: “Every new and successful example, therefore, or a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”
Since first erected, that Jeffersonian wall has suffered from increased battering and now barely stands as a worn and tattered ruin. Candidates and elected officials don their Christian credentials like armor to repel potential attacks on their motivations and character.
Everyone in our country has the right to hold any, or no, religious beliefs as they consider appropriate to suit their lives. This is a basic constitutional right, and more importantly, a basic human right to which all are entitled. Many of the framers of the U.S. Constitution were aware of the dangers of entangling religion with governmental activities and public policy.
But how separate do religion and government now stand in the United States?