This is an essay I wrote while attending the Associates Degree courses at PHSC in Dade City – David TK Hayes
The recent discussion over the National Day of Prayer at City Hall causes me great concern that in this day and age, people can still be so focused on their own personal belief structure that they have little, if any, respect for anyone else’s beliefs. As I state my own objections to having such an event at a government location, I again hear the same arguments as to why it is ‘OK’ to have these things endorsed by our government.
And I feel compelled to respond to those same arguments.
The Founding Fathers
A lot is said about the founding fathers and what they wanted and what they did. I have no dispute that these may have been religious men. And I have no doubt that these were some pretty smart guys. They figured out the separation of powers, checks and balances and the shape of our government.
And they had every opportunity to write Christianity into the Constitution, but the fact is – they did not. Thomas Jefferson, advocated time and time for the separation of church and state and that religion was to be kept between a ‘man and his maker’ and no one else. He said, “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes” (Letter to von Humboldt, 1813).
The Constitution was written and the First Amendment preserved so that you can have your religion, but you cannot establish it as the basis for government. If that were the case, then the government would indeed be ‘establishing religion’, a direct contradiction to the First Amendment of the Constitution. It therefore also establishes that I (we) can have ‘non-religion’ and expect the government to do same.
The Treaty of Tripoli confirms this as well. “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,…”
The found fathers did a lot of things that could be considered normal at the time, but not anymore. They owned slaves, they did not allow women or people of color to vote and many smoked marijuana. These were all norms then, but do not hold ANY ground today. God, nor Christianity are mentioned in the Constitution and I am pretty sure the founding fathers meant it to be that way.
Traditions are also brought up as a basis for government prayer. Please keep in mind that this ‘tradition’ was only introduced in 1952. Is was NOT part of the Constitution nor any found father’s documents, nor intentions.
Traditions are personal, familial, but not natural, nor are they national. For example, Christmas might be a tradition, but within Christmas, there are thousands of varying ‘traditions’. Gift-giving, going to church, going to sports, serving food, family gatherings, etc. For that matter, Christmas in some places includes mummering and dressing in hideous outfits to scare children. There is nothing that says your ‘Christmas’ tradition’ means anything to anyone else. And it would be wrong to think that your ‘prayer traditions’ mean anything to anyone else or that they even care.
The argument of tradition has been used to defend slavery, denying people of color the right to vote (women too) and worse. All these issues are clarified and defined in the Constitution. Tradition is not. Your traditions are your traditions, but when they involve religion, they should not become ‘government’ traditions.
What about non-denominational prayer? Well is there such a thing? In order to pray, I would have to be praying to some sort of supernatural being if I was to believe that it was going to do any good. And given that I do not believe in supernatural beings, then the prayer becomes meaningless. Hence there is no “non-denominational prayer”. Prayer is prayer.
All dictionary definitions of prayer involve a ‘God’ and/or religion.
If I want to talk to people in assembly, and speak of a better world, perhaps even hope that problems work out for society and/or discuss ways in which they might – that is called SPEECH, not prayer. And that is specifically included and protected by the Constitution. I do not need prayer to make my speech effective. Nor do I need a supernatural deity to help it have meaning. The minute that I add “Jesus Christ” or “God”, or “heavenly father” into my speech, it becomes prayer and it also becomes specific Christian, denominational prayer.
So call it what it is – prayer. And prayer assumes a religious context. Prayer is a participation in a religious ceremony that should be kept private, not included in government.
Prayer helps me be a better person
But prayer helps one feel better and be a better person right? Perhaps it does (for you), and bully for you. But it in no way has the same effect for me, and/or millions of others in this great country of ours. How I become a better person is through my actions, not my prayers. If it works for you, then great. I do not share that sentiment.
We cannot have morality without religion
Everyone judges themselves by their intentions but others will judge you by your actions. One does not need to look very far to see that religion has not cornered the market on morality. Catholic church abuses, the Nazis that persecuted the Jews with “Gott Mit Uns” (God With Us) on their belt buckles, and the millions that has been killed through the Crusades, the Inquisitions and the genocides over the centuries, all in ‘God’s Name’.
A few hundred years ago, we burned witches. Less than 50 years ago we still lynched our own people. All these crimes were committed by ‘good moral people’. It is complete hypocrisy to assume that morality comes exclusively from any form of religion. This is largely the basis for my fleeing religion during my teen years in favor of a more common-sense approach in my life.
But we are the majority
“We the people….” The government represents the people and the people want prayer, right? Yes the government represents the people, but it represents ALL the people, not just those that believe in a God, and certainly not only those that believe in a Christian God.
In order for the government to represent all of us, it also has to represent the Wiccans, the Muslims, the Jews, the Sikhs and the Hindus, the Agnostics, the Atheists, Freethinkers, non-believers and those of the faith of the Flying Spaghetti Monster too. And the only way the government can do that is to represent ‘none’ of them. By displaying any preference for one or the other group, they exclude people from the participation of their government.
This is a founding principle on which the Constitution is written. Equal rights, equal opportunities, representative government for ALL people.
If you don’t like it, well you can leave!
So much for equal rights…
Atheists could have their own ceremonies/gatherings
Well we could I guess, but they would not be ‘prayer’ oriented. We certainly are not going to come to the ‘National Day of Prayer event. That’s like inviting a reformed alcoholic to a pub crawl. It’s not something that we can participate in because we do not believe in it.
So what’s the difference between a pub crawl and a National Day of Prayer? Well fundamentally the difference is that the limits of religion are defined in the Constitution, which is the entire point of this essay.
Government cannot and should not cater to religion if it wants to represent the people. The National Day of Prayer, especially in my small city is purely a Christian event, and is not open to people of other faiths and/or non-faiths. Therefore holding it at City Hall or any other government location is a violation of the Constitutional rights of those of other faiths and non-faiths.
Have your prayer. Have it whenever you want. But you cannot have it wherever you want. Jefferson said “…religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God…” which makes it a private matter, which is where is needs to be – and outside the scope of government.