The Founders’ proclamations on fasting and prayer are relevant today
by George Landrith
Today, many Americans think that government and even public life must be strictly separated from religious life and faith. Few know what the Constitution actually says about religious freedom or what the Founders believed about the concepts of liberty, God, and religion. But our history paints a very clear picture.
On March 16, 1776, the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia issued a proclamation calling for a day of fasting and prayer. This proclamation called on Americans to “with united hearts, confess … our manifold sins and … by a sincere repentance … appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness.”
It also encouraged Americans to “humbly implor[e] his assistance to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence….” The proclamation was overtly religious and overtly Christian and it had the strong support of the Founders and the public.
This proclamation did not violate anyone’s religious freedom because it didn’t require anyone to believe or do anything. It didn’t give or withhold any government benefit and it didn’t punish anyone who ignored it. So despite its religious content, it wasn’t a violation of anyone’s religious freedom.
This proclamation was not an unusual for the Founders. In fact, it was a regular occurrence. The Continental Congress passed numerous proclamations calling for the American people fast and pray and to “express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor.” The first President of the United States, George Washington, issued such proclamations as well. So did Abraham Lincoln and many others.
The Library of Congress refers to a 1779 proclamation as “the most eloquent of the Fast and Thanksgiving Day Proclamations.” This proclamation also recommended a day of fasting and “prayer to Almighty God” requesting his blessings:
“That he will grant the Blessings of Peace to all contending Nations, Freedom to those who are in Bondage, and Comfort to the Afflicted: That he will diffuse Useful Knowledge, extend the Influence of True Religion, and give us that Peace of Mind which the World cannot give: That he will be our Shield in the Day of Battle, our Comforter in the Hour of Death, and our kind Parent and merciful Judge through Time and through Eternity.”
This could have been part of a Sunday morning sermon, but it wasn’t. It was the Founders speaking in a proclamation of the Continental Congress. And despite its religious message, it did not violate anyone’s religious freedom.
Some disagree with me and say, “that obviously violates the separation of church and state!” But the phrase “separation of church and state” or anything close to it, never appears in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
The phrase “separation of church and state” is merely a loose and sloppy phrase used in a personal letter by one of the Founders. It was not an attempt to give serious legal or scholarly thought to the provisions of the Constitution. It was just a shorthand phrase in a letter to a friend.
Yet, those with a political agenda — of forcibly purging faith from public life — have seized upon this phrase as if it were a carefully crafted constitutional doctrine — even to the point of turning the First Amendment on its head and effectively requiring the government to purge any mention of faith in public. This is not something that the Founders or the Constitution ever contemplated.
The Constitution has three primary provisions dealing with religion. One prohibits religious tests “as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” While the Founders were overwhelmingly Christians, they wanted a free society for all — not just those who shared their religious beliefs.The First Amendment contains the other two religious clauses — the Free Exercise Clause and the No Establishment Clause. Both are encapsulated in one sentence, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Simply stated, Congress may not establish a state religion, nor may it prohibit the free exercise of religion.
There is no requirement that government actively separate or segregate religious life from secular life. In fact, if government segregates religion from the public forum, it would be violating the constitutional requirement that government not prohibit the free exercise of religion.
Often those antagonistic towards religion argue that freedom of religion means freedom from religion. Certainly, those who do not want to practice religion have every right not to. But the First Amendment does not give those who dislike religion a constitutional right to live in a society free of religious people, free of religious beliefs, or free of religious expressions or practices. That would infringe on the free exercise rights and the free speech rights of everyone else.
Every day, people around us express their political, cultural and religious views. We have no right to demand that we hear only those opinions with which we agree. We have no right to silence others, claiming that our freedom of speech or our freedom of religion trumps their freedoms. That would be sheer lunacy. Yet, it is often the argument of the extreme Left.
As the proclamations calling for fasting and prayer and thanksgiving clearly show, our Founders were deeply religious. Their Christian faith led them to strive and sacrifice for a nation based on the notion “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Founders believed that God was interested in the liberty and freedom of his children. The cause of liberty was not theirs alone — it was God’s also. To them, government was designed to protect and insure the God-given liberties of the people. With that understanding, it would have made no sense for them to create a government that harbored hostility towards religion or viewed faith as dangerous or something that should be limited or segregated in mainstream society.
Yet, today, many on the extreme Left, see religion as something to be driven from public life and from the public square. Even the courts have periodically fallen prey to this anti-constitutional and anti-historical view. They seem to believe that people can practice their religion only in the privacy of their home with the blinds drawn. However sincere as these anti-faith folks may be, they are clearly and obviously wrong about the Constitution. Wrong about history. And wrong about what it means to be a free people.
The French historian, Francois Pierre Guillamume Guizot, asked James Russell Lowell, a famous American writer and abolitionist, “How long will the American Republic endure? Lowell’s response was, “As long as the ideas of the men who founded it continue to dominate.” For this reason, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that the Founders did not believe faith was in conflict with liberty. They saw faith as foundational to freedom. And while they were strong advocates of religious liberty, they did not believe it wise or useful for government to actively separate faith from public life.
March 14, 2013 – Essay #19
Read the Fast Day Proclamation of the Continental Congress here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3553
George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom.