A tale of two prayer breakfast speeches

On February 3, 2021, the day before the National Prayer Breakfast, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called for Joe Biden to endorse the separation of church at the breakfast. Here is a taste of the release:

“For four years, we watched Donald Trump pander to white Christian nationalists and unveil cruel policies that misused religious freedom to override critical civil rights protections, health care access and protections for people who use social services. We hope that at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Joe Biden establishes a new course.

“President Biden should draw a sharp contrast with his predecessor by endorsing separation of religion and government as the guarantee of religious freedom for all of us. He should make clear that his vision of religious freedom is one that doesn’t exclude anyone, including nonbelievers. And he should clarify that religious freedom is a shield meant to protect us, not a sword to cause harm to others.

“The National Prayer Breakfast and events like it are often described as opportunities to unite everyone under the banner of faith. What many Americans don’t realize is that the sponsor of The National Prayer Breakfast, The Family, is really a divisive Christian fundamentalist group seeking to advance a regressive political agenda. The Family doesn’t represent an America that lives up to our country’s values. It represents an America that dangerously excludes huge numbers of us – religious minorities, the nonreligious, people of color, LGBTQ people and many more. 

“Assuming President Biden attends, we urge him to use this platform to convey a message that is inclusive of all Americans and lifts up what is best about our nation – our shared belief in freedom of religion, equality and the strengths of a diverse society.”

Biden did not endorse separation of church and state in his four minute and twenty-two second prayer breakfast speech, but he did come close.

Watch:

Biden made general references to “faith,” but did not speak out of any specific religious tradition (with the exception of his quotation of Psalm 30:5). This was largely a speech about “faith” in America.

Compare Biden’s speech to Barack Obama’s message at the 2021 prayer breakfast. He speaks in this video at the 26:25 minute mark, but here is the transcript:

Good morning, everyone. For eight years I attended this breakfast as president. Today I’m thrilled to be here in a supporting role, more a member of the choir than the main attraction as we wait to hear from our new president, and a man of deep faith himself, president Joe Biden. But I’m honored to be asked to say a few words, especially because like so many Americans I have turned many times over the past year to my faith. The scripture tells us, “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed. In many ways, Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is a succinct encapsulation of life in 2020–a roiling pandemic, an economic crisis, nationwide protests over the enduring legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment, the widening gap between those who are doing well and those who are struggling, and an ongoing attack on our democracy and the very idea of truth. It’s a lot. And yet for all our afflictions, we are not crushed. For all that perplexes us, we are not driven to despair. Why is that? I believe the answer lies in our faith–in God, but also God’s will made manifest in the American story. It’s a faith rooted in the knowledge that we’ve been tested before and come out stronger. And while we may never achieve perfection, we can become more perfect. This deep and abiding faith in this country and the role that we have to play was articulated so eloquently by young Amanda Gorman in her inaugural poem last month. Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it is the past we step into and how we repair it. That’s who we are, and who we must be. So let us pray for our country, for our new president, and for all those who, while struck down, have not been destroyed. May we run with endurance the race set before us and may the Lord guide us on our journey. God bless all of you and God bless the United States of America.

Obama continues to be the master of American civil religion. Notice how he seamlessly moves from Paul’s encouragement to the Christian believers in Corinth to “God’s will made manifest in the American story.” He is much better at weaving Christianity and the American story.

I am not sure how Obama’s approach is any different from the way Mike Pence used the Bible during his vice-presidency. The only real difference is the vision of America to which the Bible is being applied.

Obama’s 2006 speech on religion and public life is worth reading amid our current moment

This morning I read Senator Barack Obama’s 2006 keynote address to Call to Renewal, a conference sponsored by evangelical activist Jim Wallis and Sojourners. You can read the entire speech here, but I found this section of the speech compelling:

So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will? It’s going to take more work, a lot more work than we’ve done so far. The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed. And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.

While I’ve already laid out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do — some truths they need to acknowledge.

For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God’s test of devotion.

But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.

Finally, any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion.

This goes for both sides.

Even those who claim the Bible’s inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages – the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ’s divinity – are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life.

The American people intuitively understand this, which is why the majority of Catholics practice birth control and some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless are opposed to a Constitutional amendment to ban it. Religious leadership need not accept such wisdom in counseling their flocks, but they should recognize this wisdom in their politics.

But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase “under God.” I didn’t. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs – targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers – that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.

So we all have some work to do here. But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide. They’re tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that’s not how they think about faith in their own lives.

So let me end with just one other interaction I had during my campaign. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:

“Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you.”

The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be “totalizing.” His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of the Republican agenda.

But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor went on to write:

“I sense that you have a strong sense of justice…and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason…Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded….You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others…I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”

Fair-minded words.

So I looked at my website and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.

Re-reading the doctor’s letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own – a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.

And that night, before I went to bed I said a prayer of my own. It’s a prayer I think I share with a lot of Americans. A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It’s a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, James Dobson of Focus on the Family was appalled by this speech. I think he realized Obama was no slouch when it came to thinking biblically and historically. This made Obama a threat and probably scared Dobson to death.

I am also struck by the fact that Dobson and Obama have a lot in common. Both argue for the role of Christian faith in American democratic life. Obama is not entirely secular here.

Of course we can also debate whether Obama’s presidential administration, as it developed between 2009 and 2017, reflected the ideas set forth in this speech.

Trump’s Guidance on Prayer in Schools Was “hardly worth the excitement”

See you at the pole

“See You at the Pole”: Perfectly legal

Here is Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty:

(RNS) — When President Donald Trump leaked, at a rally for evangelical supporters in Florida on Jan. 3, that his administration would issue guidance about prayer in public schools, he started a mini-firestorm, and not just among the fired-up crowd.

When the guidance was released on Thursday (Jan. 16), however, it turned out to be hardly worth the excitement. According to long-settled legal and constitutional protections for religious expression in the public schools, public school students are free to pray, wear religious clothing and accessories and talk about their beliefs. Religious groups can meet on school grounds, and teachers can teach about religion as an academic subject. Religious liberty, in short, is already a treasured value in our nation’s public schools.

So why are the president and White House staffers making inflammatory and misleading statements, claiming our constitutional rights are under attack?

It could be that the administration simply wanted to remind public schools of their constitutional duties.

Tyler is being polite.  She knows why Trump felt the need to affirm an already existing Supreme Court decision that allows students to pray in school. He wanted to use the spiritual discipline of prayer to score political points with his conservative evangelical base.  Trump is not savvy enough to think of this on his own.  One of his so-called evangelical advisers probably told him to do this.

So let’s get the facts on the proverbial table:

  1. The Supreme Court made mandatory prayer in schools unconstitutional in the 1962 Engle v. Vitale case.  Mandatory prayer is still unconstitutional.  Nothing Trump did on Thursday changed this.  I have now heard from several Trump voters who think that Trump somehow overturned Engle v. Vitale with his remarks.  He did not.  Not even the Trump Administration is saying this.  But I am sure that Trump wouldn’t mind it if some uneducated evangelicals believed that he restored mandatory school prayer.
  2. In 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed in Sante Fe ISD v. Doe that “The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment prevent the government from making any law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  By no means do these commands impose a prohibition of all religious activity in our public schools.  See, e. g., Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 508 U. S. 384, 395 (1993); Board of Ed. of Westside Community Schools (Dist. 66) v. Mergens, 496 U. S. 226 (1990); Wallace, 472 U. S., at 59. Indeed, the common purpose of the Religion Clauses “is to secure religious liberty.” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421, 430 (1962). Thus, nothing in the Constitution as interpreted by this Court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday.”
  3. In other words, Trump’s so-called “guidance” merely affirmed what was already in place.
  4. Have there been cases when school districts, acting in bad faith, have failed to uphold this constitutional right to pray in schools?  Of course.  But as Binghamton University historian Adam Laats pointed out yesterday, these cases are the exception rather than the rule.
  5. In my chapter on evangelical fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I wrote, “Donald Trump himself, during his 2016 campaign, [claimed] that crime was rising when it was actually falling.  He attempted to portray refugees and undocumented immigrants as threats to the American public even though the chances that an American will die at the hands of a refugee terrorist is about one in 3.6. million; the chance of being murdered by an undocumented immigrant is one in 10.9 million per year.  One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch on fire.  Yet Trump managed to convince Americans that immigrants are “imminent threats” to their safety.”  I would love to get an idea of how many violations of Sante Fe ISD v. Doe occur each year and compare that number to the number of voluntary public school prayer groups that function everyday in full accordance with Sante Fe ISD v. Doe.

Here is Tyler again:

…some comments officials made before and in their announcement of the guidance vastly overstated the supposed problem and echoed the claims of Christian nationalism, a dangerous movement that harms both Christianity and the United States by implying that to be a good American, one must be Christian.

Christian nationalists often point to two Supreme Court cases from the 1960s, Engel v. Vitale and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, to claim that the government “banned school prayer” or “took God out of the schools.” These are harmful misrepresentations. These cases didn’t ban the free exercise of Christian worship. They banned mandatory Bible readings and prayers written by the government. It should not be controversial to oppose government-dictated religious practice.

Instead of enforcing government-mandated religion, these Supreme Court cases ensured that public school students are free to exercise their constitutionally protected religious beliefs and affirmed the proper way to handle religion in public schools.

And it’s worked: For decades, public schools across the nation have modeled how religiously diverse populations can build relationships of trust and care, respecting the unique role that religion plays in people’s lives. Like our neighbors of all faiths, we are empowered by the First Amendment to live our beliefs in the public square, which includes the public school.

Read the rest here.

Trump’s Choice of Church for His “Evangelicals for Trump” Rally Today

King JesusAs we have discussed a few times already here at the blog, Trump will be speaking at a big “Evangelicals for Trump” rally later today in Miami. The event will take place at the King Jesus Ministry Church,  evangelical megachurch.  A few things are worth noting about this church:

  • The King Jesus Ministry Church fits squarely within the Prosperity Gospel branch of American Christianity.  These Christians teach God always blessing his faithful followers with financial wealth and physical health.  Trump staffer and prominent court evangelical Paula White, the woman who claims she led Trump through a born-again experience, is the most important pro-Trump player in this movement.  As I chronicled in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, the president’s support among the prosperity gospelers is strong.  The pastor, Guillermo Maldonado, is from Honduras.  He calls himself “The Apostle.”  His wife, Ana Maldonado, is known as “The Prophetess.” Together, they run the University of the Supernatural Ministry,
  • The King Jesus Ministry Church is also a Hispanic evangelical megachurch.  Many members of the congregation are undocumented immigrants, or, to use the language of the court evangelicals, “illegals.”  Most of the evangelical leaders who will attend this event believe these undocumented workers need to be deported.  Donald Trump also believes that they should be deported.  Many of those in attendance at today’s rally cannot even vote.  As we have already seen, some of these church members fear that if they come to the rally they will be deported.  So let’s remember that two of Trump’s signature issues–the courting of evangelicals and immigration–will be at odds tonight.  (Some of you may recall Paula White’s attempt to use Romans 13 to justify the separation of children from their families at the Mexican border).
  • I don’t know how the program will unfold, but if the rally looks anything like a Pentecostal church service there is bound to be some awkwardness.  Many of the court evangelicals–including Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas–have serious theological disagreements with Pentecostal theology and worship.  And, of course, Trump never looks comfortable in these settings. Let’s see how this unfolds.
  • An atheist group is not happy about this event.  This group wants the IRS to commence an immediate investigation into King Jesus Ministry for violating the clause in the tax code prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from participating in and/or intervening in a political campaign.  It certainly seems like this group has a point.  If Pastor Maldonado is promoting Trump from the pulpit and using his authority to urge his people to attend a political rally at the church he may be in violation of the so-called Johnson Amendment.  Trump and many of his evangelical supports think that the president brought an end to the Johnson Amendment through executive order in May 2017 (Maldonado was present for the event).  This is not true.  The clause forbidding churches (and other organizations with tax exempt status) from endorsing political candidates is still on the books.  It can only be changed by Congress.  I can’t think of a more blatant violation of the Johnson Amendment than a pastor urging his congregation to attend a political rally.  I doubt anything will come of this, but it is worth noting.

For more on what to expect tonight, check out my posts here and here.  I will be on NBC News Now (live stream) with Alison Morris around 3:15pm tomorrow (January 3rd) to talk about the rally.

Mayor Pete Shows-Up at Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School Class

Carter and Pete

Carter invited Buttigieg to read scripture, but so far I have not seen anything on the what specific passage he asked the South Bend mayor to read.

Buttigieg showed-up unannounced.  Carter, perhaps in an attempt to avoid playing favorites, told the members of the class that Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, both Democratic presidential candidates, have also visited his class.

Read all about it here.

Frankly, I am not a fan of this.  As I have said multiple times at this blog in the context of conservative evangelical political activity, I don’t like bringing politics into the church in this way.  Call me a skeptic, but this move by Buttigieg looks like an attempt to win the support of progressive Christians.

The Author’s Corner with Steven Green

the third disestablishment

Steven Green is the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of History and Religious Studies at Williamette University. This interview is based on his new book, The Third Disestablishment: Church, State, and American Culture, 1940-1975 (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Third Disestablishment?

SG: Many things led me to write The Third Disestablishment.  I have written extensively about the ongoing dynamic of religious disestablishment in the 18th and 19th centuries.  My thesis has been (and continues to be) that there were various levels of disestablishment — political, institutional, legal, cultural — and that they occurred in incremental steps and at different times.  In essence, disestablishment was not perfected with the enactment of the 1st Amendment and, quite clearly, there was never a consensus on what it meant.  The Third Disestablishment brings this narrative forward to the mid-20th century where the Supreme Court formally embraced separation of church and state as the meaning of the Establishment Clause.  The book examines the cultural forces behind this embrace.  I felt that this was a story that had not been fully told before.

I also wrote the book in order to explore the background of the ongoing controversy over whether separation of church and state is/was the correct model.  The book also seeks to address why separationism arose, then fell into disfavor, at least as a legal principle.   Finally, on a personal level, in my earlier career as a 1st Amendment lawyer, I encountered several of the figures and organizations discussed in the book, though in their much later years.  This motivated me to examine the initial dynamic that led them to become involved in this issue.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Third Disestablishment?

SG: The book responds to more recent interpretations that maintain that separation of church and state became a legal and popular construct in mid-century due chiefly to residual Protestant suspicions of Catholicism.  It also maintains that even in its heyday, church-state separation was a contestable and indeterminate concept, and that its demise both legally and culturally began much earlier than has otherwise been maintained.

JF: Why do we need to read The Third Disestablishment?

SG: While numerous books have been written on the development of church and state, this book provides a fresh perspective by interweaving the cultural and legal developments of the period into  comprehensive narrative.  It examines the cultural backdrop to the Court’s adoption of its modern church-state jurisprudence.  It explores the roles of leading figures of the time, including Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, Paul Blanshard, Cardinal Francis Spellman, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, John F. Kennedy, and several consequential Supreme Court justices.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SG: I have been interested in the interaction between religion and politics/law in US history since undergraduate school.  I made the decision to enter a history PhD program after practicing law for 4 years.   Since then, I have had an amazing career that has allowed me to do legal advocacy, teaching, and scholarship in the area of religion, law, politics and history. 

JF: What is your next project?

SG: I am writing a book for Cornell University Press in its religion in public life series on–you guessed it–the development of church-state separation in American history.

JF: Thanks, Steven!