By law, the first Thursday in May is designated a “National Day of Prayer.” The First Continental Congress started the tradition in 1775, it was codified in law beginning in 1952, and it was made permanent in 1988. When Congress gathers today — and in future days — should someone lead them in prayer?
Speaker of the House Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) recently caused a stir with the requested resignation of the House’s chaplain, Rev. Patrick Conroy. Accusations of politicization came flying thick and fast as well as charges of Ryan showing an anti-Catholic bias in removing the priest (puzzling, considering that Ryan is himself a devout Catholic).
Nothing more could be further from the truth.
For sure, America’s founders opposed the establishment of a national church: Church doctrine would not determine the laws, and laws would not determine church doctrine. However, the founders did encourage and support religion in public laws, official speeches and ceremonies and on public property and buildings.
The founders’ support for blending religion and politics was based on the following syllogism: Morality is necessary for republican government; religion is necessary for morality; therefore, religion is necessary for republican government. This is as true in the 21st century as it was in the 18th. It was true in the past, and, given the human condition, will be true in the future.
The health of liberty depends on the principles, standards and morals common to all religions. America does not depend on a shared theology, but it does depend on a shared morality. By acknowledging the realm in which reason and faith agree and can cooperate about morality and politics, religious liberty unites civic morality and the moral teachings of religion, thereby establishing common standards to guide private and public life.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” Washington wrote in his farewell address, “religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness — these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”
While some of exceptional self-control may act virtuously without religion, that exception is not a strong enough foundation for society: “And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”
This simultaneous separation and interplay of church and state has shaped American government from the beginning. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, even though religion “never intervenes directly in the government of American society,” it determines the “habits of the heart” and is the first of America’s political institutions.
On the day after Congress approved the Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment’s religious-liberty language), Congress called upon the president 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 signal favors of Almighty God.”
But can public prayer still have a place in our government today? In his famous proclamation appointing a day of prayer in 1863, President Lincoln feared that:
“We have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand, which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”
In the fall of 1774, the First Continental Congress, at a moment when hostilities looked imminent and the possibility of war weighed heavy on its members, turned to prayer for divine guidance. Just like today, members squabbled, divided over denominational status, and failed to find agreement. Then Sam Adams, the firebrand known more for being contentious than conciliatory, rose and said that he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as he was a patriot. This has been the criterion for every priest or pastor who has led Congress in prayer since.
Americans ask those who represent us to do an incredibly important task in often challenging times. We demand they carry out their constitutional functions in a civil and upright way for the good of our nation. The pressures are great, and the temptations strong. They need all the help they can get.
Keep the chaplain. If anything, Congress needs more chaplains, more prayer and more appeals, as it says in the Declaration of Independence, to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of their intentions.
Matthew Spalding is associate vice president and dean of Educational Programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., where he is the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. chair in Constitutional Studies.