A wall of separation?
By Rev. Dr. Howard S. Russell, CHM President & CEO
Social media is all the rage in the 21st century—for good and for ill. Unfortunately, ill often sells better than good.
Memes are popular on social media because they convey a simple message simply. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a meme as, “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online, especially through social media.”
One such meme, titled “The Only Wall America Needs,” is a cartoon showing a wall running diagonally from upper-left to lower-right of the photo. On the right-hand side of the wall are drawings of a church, synagogue, and mosque with captions and arrow saying “Church,” and, “Religion goes here.”
On the wall’s left-hand side are drawings of government buildings captioned “State,” and a public school, with an arrow and caption that says, “Science goes here.”
Underneath it all, referring back to “The Only Wall America Needs,” it says, “A large high wall.”
In some ways, what the meme says is correct: Christians don’t want the state telling them what in the Bible they are allowed to believe, what is legal for a minister to preach, or to be punished for declaring Christian beliefs.
The state doesn’t want a co-equal official standing with the church, as it is in England, where the monarch is both head of state and head of the church. Thus, the wording of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
However, some in America take the wall of separation to mean there can be no expressions of faith in the public square because it breaches the wall. That’s why there are periodic attacks on prayer before public meetings and the like.
What some seem to want is that if public officials are people of faith, they should not be asked about it and, if asked, shouldn’t tell.
That wasn’t part of national life for many years. How our country dealt with this in the past is instructive on how we ought to approach the subject today.
That’s because principles don’t change. Politics change. Emotions change. Issues change. But not principles.
- Marsh vs. Chambers, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on July 5, 1983. A Nebraska state senator had objected to prayers at the start of legislative sessions. He filed a lawsuit to stop the prayers.
- The Supreme Court’s majority decision ruling that the prayer was not unconstitutional was written by Chief Justice Warren Burger: “On September 25, 1789, three days after Congress authorized the appointment of paid chaplains, final agreement was reached on the language of the Bill of Rights. Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment Religion Clauses did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress (emphasis added).
- George Washington, the nation’s first president, was president of the Constitutional Convention from which the U.S. Constitution emerged. His National Thanksgiving Proclamation of Oct. 3, 1789 (as it appears on the Library of Congress’s website) said, in part:
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me 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 especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
- Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, on March 30, 1863 made a proclamation calling America to a day of “National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.”
“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But 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.”
Is the meme correct? In one way, yes. But in another—in the suggestion that faith has no place in the public square, it’s quite wrong.
God bless all of us, and the United States of America.