What Would Jefferson Do?

May 2 is National Prayer Day. John Ragosta, author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, penned the following thoughts at the outset of the day and has shared them with us.

Today marks the official National Day of Prayer. Republicans and Democrats across the nation will soon sit down to meetings and meals bookended with an opening and closing prayer. Certainly there is much to pray for: action on global climate change, fiscal responsibility, justice for immigrants, wisdom, humility, and peace.

Yet with the National Day of Prayer, we inevitably witness another festival: the debate between those demanding its end in the name of separation of church and state, and others who will complain that government is censoring prayers in the name of political correctness. Upon what might be a welcome bipartisan interlude, shrill voices intrude.

Having spent time studying religious freedom at Monticello’s International Center for Jefferson Studies, I inevitably come back to the following question: What would Jefferson do? How would he react to a National Day of Prayer mandated by Congress and proclaimed by the President?

Several years ago, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled the official Day of Prayer unconstitutional (before the case was thrown out for lack of standing). Judge Crabb was clear: the problem is not prayer, or even prayer by government officials; rather, the issue is government seeking to use prayer for political purposes, literally taking what is sacred and making it profane. Judge Crabb quoted the Supreme Court: “in the hands of government what might begin as a tolerant expression of religious views may end in a policy to indoctrinate and coerce.” This echoed James Madison’s admonition almost two hundred years earlier that official prayer proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious [sic] idea of a national religion.” It was for this reason that Jefferson emphatically rejected any “official,” government call to prayer. Not only did Jefferson see government prayer proclamations as unconstitutional, but he added: “I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises . . . Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. . . . Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them . . . and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.” Jefferson undoubtedly would join Judge Crabb in insisting that prayer should not be government-directed or sponsored. Jefferson’s concern for mixing government and religion was both political and theological. Politically, government support of religion threatened “tyranny over the mind,” a country led by “priestcraft.” Theologically, Jefferson would have agreed with eighteenth century evangelicals, equally committed to strict separation of church and state, who understood that even government encouragement interfered with a “free will offering” to God, a wholly-voluntary decision to believe and pray.

To stop there, though, is to miss an important part of Jefferson’s learning. In both of his inaugural addresses, Jefferson invoked divine guidance. Some, ignoring his emphatic declaration to the contrary, insist that Jefferson supported official prayer. Others accuse Jefferson of inconsistency, saying that prayer proclamations which he insisted were unconstitutional and his inaugural prayers were “indistinguishable.” Jefferson did not see it that way. An official proclamation of a day of prayer is a government act – subject to the constraints of the First Amendment; a private prayer, even when made by a public official in a public setting, is not. Madison made a similar point when he concluded that an official congressional chaplain was unconstitutional, but Members of Congress, acting in their private capacity, could certainly gather to pray: “If Religion consist in voluntary acts of individuals . . . and it be proper that public functionaries, as well as their Constituents should discharge their religious duties, let them like their Constituents, do so at their own expense.” What they should not seek is government endorsement or funding for their prayers.Thus, Christian ministers rightly object that government should not tell them to omit Jesus’ name from their prayers, but that is the result of being officially-sponsored. Eighteenth century evangelicals rejected government assistance for this reason, recognizing that it would be “the first link which Draws after it a chain of horrid consequences, and that by Degrees it will terminate in who shall preach, when they shall preach, where they shall preach, and what they shall preach.”

Jefferson was a prayerful man, but he rejected as both inappropriate and dangerous government intrusion into the sacred realm. So, what would Jefferson do? Paul advised to “pray ceaselessly,” but he certainly did not ask the government to sponsor his prayer meetings. Jefferson would agree.