National Day of Prayer and James Madison

As predicted, the religious right is bewailing the fall of this country into a moral cesspool, and the loss of their religious liberty with the recent court ruling on the National Day of Prayer.  I just got done listening to today’s Crosstalk program on VCY America, 107.7 FM here in West Bend.  Vic Eliason interviewed Matt Stave of the Liberty Council.  You can listen to the  program here when today’s edition is posted online.  Listening to it, one would think that prayer itself had been outlawed in this country.  One woman called in near the end of the show and asked what would happen if they went ahead and held the National Day of Prayer anyway.  Unfortunately neither host, nor guest tried to put the ruling into any kind of rational perspective. 

This ruling does not outlaw the National Day of Prayer.  Private religious organizations can go ahead and do what they have always done every year in the past.  They can hold their rallies all over the country at state capitols and can still hold a rally in Washington D.C.  The ruling isn’t applicable to the whole country and is nowhere near reaching the Supreme Court yet.  Even if the Supreme Court were to uphold this ruling all it would do is prohibit the State and Federal governments from issuing a proclamation calling on all Americans to pray on such and such a day.  Hardly an erosion of an individual’s right to exercise their religion. 

In an earlier post I referenced a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote outlining his reasons for not issuing a proclamation calling for a National Day of Thanksgiving.  Not at all dissimilar to the current National Day of Prayer proclamations.  In this post I would like to refer you to a letter James Madison wrote in his retirement about the same subject. 

I observe with particular pleasure the view you have taken of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction, in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or the public peace. This has always been a favorite principle with me; and it was not with my approbation, that the deviation from it took place in Congress, when they appointed Chaplains, to be paid from the National Treasury. It would have been a much better proof to their Constituents of their pious feeling if the members had contributed for the purpose, a pittance from their own pockets. As the precedent is not likely to be rescinded, the best that can now be done maybe to apply to the constitution the maxim of the law, de minimis non curant.

There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive Proclamations of fasts & festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of injunction, or have lost sight of the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms.…

Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst. And in a Government of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of Religion by law, was right & necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of every other; And that the only question to be decided was which was the true religion. The example of Holland proved that a toleration of sects, dissenting from the established sect, was safe & even useful. The example of the Colonies, now States, which rejected religious establishments altogether, proved that all Sects might be safely & advantageously put on a footing of equal & entire freedom; and a continuance of their example since the declaration of Independence, has shewn that its success in Colonies was not to be ascribed to their connection with the parent Country. If a further confirmation of the truth could be wanted, it is to be found in the examples furnished by the States, which have abolished their religious establishments. I cannot speak particularly of any of the cases excepting that of Virga. where it is impossible to deny that Religion prevails with more zeal, and a more exemplary priesthood than it ever did when established and patronised by Public authority. We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt.

                              ——James Madison to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822 (emphasis mine)

I firmly believe that government and religion are better off holding to Madison’s and Jefferson’s views on Church and State than we are with Matt Staver’s and Jay Sekulow’s.


One response to this post.

  1. […] that drove the founders vision of religious freedom.  In an earlier  post, that you can find here, about this topic I printed a letter from James Madison.  From what he said in that letter I doubt […]


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