A National Prayer Breakfast is one thing. A National Day of Prayer is another.
Americans broadly endorse Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state; according to one recent survey, almost two-thirds of Americans want to keep religion separate from government policies. But there is a great deal of difference of opinion on what a wall of separation entails. Many people, for example, are in favor of keeping government from meddling in churches’ affairs, but whether the church is equally constrained from interfering in government is more hotly contested.
Jefferson and his evangelical supporters contended that the “wall of separation” worked both ways, to prevent both church and state from being corrupted. Madison, too, warned against the “corrupting influence on both the parties” if church and state are “mixed together.”
For them, one of the central dangers of church-state mixing was that corrupt politicians would use support from ministers to prop up their government, and corrupt ministers would use support from the government to prop up their control of their church. The problem was equally real whether support involved financial assistance or simply official endorsement. Jefferson and his allies believed that the people in general, as well as truth, good governance, and religion, all suffer as a result of such church-state alliances. Jefferson bridled at the prospect. “Priestcraft”—ministers seeking an official role—“is always in alliance with the Despot abetting his abuse in return for protection,” he charged.
Trying to make the point in a way that would resonate with religious people, Jefferson explained that the crucifixion of Jesus was the first fruit of church-state cooperation, when the church tried institutionally to influence political affairs.
Today, Jefferson and Madison would be appalled at the notion of “court evangelicals.” The “aristocracy of the clergy” was dangerous, Jefferson wrote; it used religion “to filch wealth & power to themselves.”
But that raises another question: Does Jefferson’s conception of the separation of church and state prevent a religious person from serving in government while embracing their own beliefs and worship?
Most certainly not. This misguided notion is what Jefferson referred to as the “slander” of his opponents: that Jefferson sought a “government without religion.”
Jefferson understood that even with the separation required by the First Amendment, the American people would continue to be religious (though he thought most would become Unitarian). Certainly, he expected that officials would act in a moral and ethical manner based in part on their religious views.
What the First Amendment’s wall of separation is intended to do is prevent those officials from using their official status to promote their religion.
Jefferson addressed this issue in several contexts. For example, while officials would have political views, Jefferson understood that they could not use “official influence” to promote political partisanship. (Similarly, the modern Hatch Act is intended to prevent such abuse of power to perpetuate power; unfortunately, the law was too often violated in the past administration and should be enforced vigorously.) The military has a similar requirement: While military men and women will undoubtedly have political opinions and are free to attend political events, they cannot do so in uniform, thereby giving the impression that the military endorses a particular political party (a rule, again, often ignored).
If an official uses his or her position (i.e., state power) to promote religion, it interferes with a central pillar of religious liberty: A person’s religion “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities,” the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor of the First Amendment, explains.
Jefferson himself gave one of the best examples of how this rule applies to officials who are religious.
Jefferson was adamant that it was a violation of the First Amendment for the government to issue an official prayer proclamation (although Washington and Adams had done so and Madison would do so under duress, later lamenting that doing so violated the First Amendment). Jefferson said he was prohibited from such “intermedling” [sic] in religion, even from officially “recommend[ing]” a day of prayer during a national crisis, this being a right retained by every religious society “for itself.”
Yet, Jefferson prayed publicly in both of his inaugural addresses.
He obviously viewed these as very different things. Madison explained that “in their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station,” politicians could (and would) worship. Madison embraced the same distinction when, as Secretary of State, he refused to intervene formally in a dispute over Louisiana’s Catholic bishop but responded to a personal inquiry from his friend Bishop John Carroll in a private letter. Justice Stevens made the point in the Van Orden case (involving a Ten Commandments monument), distinguishing speeches made by officials that clearly reflected the “personal view of the speaker.”
Thus, there is a fundamental difference between a president who comes out of the White House on a Sunday morning or Friday afternoon (carrying a Bible or prayer book) who tells a scrum of reporters that he is on his way to church or synagogue and wishes them a good day and, on the other hand, a president who announces a press conference and issues an official statement, on government letterhead and released to the wires and social media through official channels, urging all good and patriotic Americans to go to church.
To put this in modern terms, Jefferson would have likely attended the National Prayer Breakfast (a private event that attracts many of Washington’s political leaders) but eschewed as inappropriate the National Day of Prayer (a designation of an official day of prayer by Congress that Jefferson would have seen as a breach in the wall of separation). The distinction is important.
Undoubtedly, as Madison noted, there will be difficult cases when it might be hard to discern the precise line, but the principle is clear: Officials can pray, even publicly; they cannot pray officially.
John Ragosta is a fellow at Virginia Humanities and author of, among other works, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.