The separation of church and state was one of the most ingenious inclusions in the Bill of Rights (it was a relatively novel idea at the time). So, why, over 200 years after the ratification of the First Amendment, does our government still sometimes err in keeping its affairs distinct from religious ones? One would think that ample time has passed to eliminate the overlaps between church and state. Nevertheless, a common overlap was exhibited this past weekend. President Obama designated three National Days of Prayer and Remembrance to honor the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. Obama’s proclamation encouraged Americans to remember 9/11 through “prayer, contemplation, memorial services, the visiting of memorials, the ringing of bells, evening candlelight remembrance vigils, and other appropriate ceremonies and activities.”
These three days were overall well intentioned, and there is no problem with the government encouraging Americans to remember and honor those lost on 9/11. It was an extraordinarily tragic and seminal day, one that continues to affect the entire world. It is in the nation’s best interest to always remember such an important event — and doing so will only get more difficult in the future. Those who were old enough to remember 9/11 probably will not forget it. The increasing numbers of children born afterwards, though, must learn about it secondhand. Days of remembrance are necessary to impart on future generations the full magnitude of 9/11. To that end, President Obama’s recent proclamation is entirely appropriate.
On the other hand, it is against the government’s charter to promote actions that are purely religious. The issue is not that the government is forcing people to pray. Rather, the larger problem is that the government is invoking religion where it should not. Obama’s proclamation overstepped its bounds by promoting prayer. But that overreach is not a problem that is isolated to the Obama administration. Indeed, government-sponsored days of prayer have been common occurrences since our nation’s founding, and Congress even signed an annual day of prayer into law in 1952. These are issues that should be more commonly addressed. Doing away with national days of prayer entirely would require lengthy legislative disputes, and it seems improbable (the legal challenges to such have thus far been unsuccessful). There is one constructive step, however, that future presidents may take: avoiding undue religious promotion in the political sphere.
Thomas Jefferson illustrated this concept best when he penned the idea of a “wall of separation” between the American government and religion. Following this image, religion should be barred from encroaching on government-sponsored institutions or events and vice-versa. Jefferson stood by his words, too. He never endorsed a national day of prayer during his terms, establishing a precedent that should be emulated by other presidents.
As this past weekend and most past presidencies show, improvements are needed to keep church and state separated. Yet these alterations need not be difficult. Future presidents can simply elect to leave religious language out of government initiatives. For example, any future days of remembrance proclaimed by the government should only express the need for commemoration and respect in secular terms. This would allow the government to reach out to all citizens equally — nonbelievers, after all, do not recognize the power of prayer but may still wish to take part in a collective day of remembrance — and to avoid suggesting that Americans should engage in religious practices. Moreover, promoting religious exercises should be excluded because they are irrelevant to the overall goal of a day of remembrance, that is, keeping the event and people involved fresh in our minds.
The government should not feel compelled to suggest that Americans pray or perform any sort of religious practice, even though the U.S. is a very religious nation. Unfortunately, the inclusion of religious language into government proclamations is likely a preemptive move to stave off blowback from religious communities. Political figures are often criticized for not espousing adequate religious beliefs. The deeply religious comprise a significant demographic and politicians must pander to this group like they do to any other. President Obama may just be going through the normal political motions by including prayer alongside the day of remembrance. But such decisions are not benign. Obama and most of the presidents preceding him have only more incontrovertibly intertwined the government with religion by entertaining ideas like national days of prayer.
Americans are free to pray on their own to commemorate 9/11. Future presidents (or President Obama — he still has time left) should refrain from including religious language in proclamations and should do away with government-sponsored national days of prayer. The government has no role in this country’s religions and should establish new precedents to reflect this. The government suggesting Americans undertake religious practice is a capitulation to all those who seek to breach Jefferson’s wall of separation.