“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” —US Constitution, Amendment 1.
This year, the month of November brings us not only the Thanksgiving holiday, but also Election Day, which we hope will be the end of the presidential contest… Sometimes it has felt more like a civil war fought with words.
The campaigns often seem to bring up the role of religion and faith in our candidates and seems to renew the debate regarding the role of religion in American public life.
I found it interesting when I discovered that you can’t find anywhere in the Constitution , or even the Declaration of Independence, the idea of keeping all religion and all government separate. The closest I found was the Bill of Rights, where the federal government’s power over the rights of the states is clarified, when the first amendment says Congress can’t legislate a mandatory religion nor can it make a law that would in any way prohibit the ‘free exercise’ of religion. It never says religious groups have to be completely free of government… it says the CONGRESS has to keep its nose out of religion.
Thomas Jefferson once answered a letter to a friend who was worried that the government might impinge on the religious rights of citizens, by saying there was a ’wall of separation’ between church and state that the government could never get past, so his friend wouldn’t have to worry. That phrase has been used in the past century to claim that Christians ought to stay out of government and churches absolutely must remain neutral in all things political.
Now, I’m not about to tell you who you ought to vote for… for president, or representative, or even for a local political officer. BUT, I am hoping that you can hear my concern that we, as Christians, have both a right and a duty to get involved in the selection of our leaders. God chose for us to be born in a land where we, the people, are the decision makers regarding our leadership.
I think Abraham Lincoln, (and George Washington, among others) had it right when they would call for a National Day of Prayer or a National Day of Thanksgiving… They weren’t trying to force or coerce people into a religious expression or observance… But they, as president, could invite the American people to boldly go to God Himself in prayer and thanksgiving.
As we approach Election Day, and then Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember that there is no wall that separates us from the affairs of our nation… and, like so many of our presidents before us, we can invite others to join us in the free exercise of religion… including the right to go to the Almighty God in prayer for our nation and the leaders we are electing.
I’ve included the text of President Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation as an example of how government can invite, but not legislate, in this area. He issued it in the midst of the American Civil War, and it still rings true today…
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union. In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A.D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.