… Christianity has been so wrought into the history of this republic, so identified with its growth and prosperity, has been and is so dear to the hearts of the great body of our citizens, that it ought not to be spoken of contemptuously or treated with ridicule.
– Justice David Brewer, “The United States: A Christian Nation” (1905)
When did religious freedom cease to include the right to pray according to your own conscience? On Sept. 7, 2006, oral arguments were heard in the appeal of a case called Hinrichs v. Bosma, where the Indiana House of Representatives has been ordered by a federal judge to “refrain from using Christ’s name or title” in opening prayer – a practice which had been unopposed for over 180 years.
This week in Virginia, Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt is being tried before a special court-martial for his public opposition to the new Navy policy prohibiting chaplains from praying in the name of Jesus during certain command functions. Since their earliest history, both the Indiana Legislature and the chaplains in the Navy have been ending prayers in the name of Jesus.
These cases illustrate a nationwide trend in which public prayers in the name of Jesus Christ are being silenced. Such prayer censorship, however, is neither legal nor historical.
Go back to another Sept. 7 – back to 1774 – when the Rev. Jacob Duch?, an Episcopal clergyman, opened our First Continental Congress in prayer at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, Pa. After reading Psalm 35, Rev. Duch? began to pray extemporaneously for wisdom, safety, peace and order for all those assembled from the various colonies, concluding “in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and Our Savior, Amen.” John Adams, who later became our second president, wrote that he had “never heard a better prayer, or one so well pronounced.” Congress responded in the congressional journals showing their appreciation to Rev. Duch? “for performing divine Service, and for the excellent prayer.” (Emphasis added)
For over 230 years, legislative bodies, public assemblies and even our courts have opened with prayer in the name of Jesus, a fitting recognition in a land originally founded “for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.” (Mayflower Compact, 1620.)
In 1854, when the office of chaplain in the Army, Navy, at West Point and in both Houses of Congress was attacked, the House of Representatives responded by stating, “In this age there can be no substitute for Christianity. … That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.”
However, many today protest acknowledgments of Christianity because of “religious diversity,” “cultural pluralism” or a perceived duty of “government neutrality” toward religion. Citing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, they work to remove any reference to Jesus Christ in public prayer.
Such opposition misses the critical point: that liberty of conscience is a central principle of the Christian faith. Before he became our fourth president, James Madison proposed the First Amendment and was known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison believed that Christians ought to recognize religious freedom for others:
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin [Christianity], we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. (“Memorial and Remonstrance”)
Madison recognized that Christianity is a religion of freedom and not coercion, and that we each answer to God if we abuse the freedom of others.
Nevertheless, the recognition and encouragement of Christianity was not an abuse of the role of government. Justice Joseph Story wrote in his “Commentaries on the Constitution” in 1833 that “at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the amendment to it, now under consideration [the First Amendment], the general, if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state. …” Today, far from receiving encouragement, Christianity is opposed, disparaged and ignored by a warped interpretation of the First Amendment.
When the Legislature of Indiana or a chaplain in the Navy, Army or Air Force says a prayer in the name of Jesus, no religion is being established and no religious freedom is abused. On the contrary, the religious freedom enjoyed by all our people is being exercised in the finest American tradition.
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