In the months leading up to the start of Fall semester, the Roanoke Times opinion pages hosted an illuminating exchange over the cultural dispositions and motivations of the Founders and the role of prayer in U.S. government. Bob Crawford began the discussion with a review and rebuttal of some of the most common arguments made in support of (by definition state-sanctioned) official prayer at government meetings, including an argument from tradition or precedent, an argument from founding principles, and an argument from neutrality or inclusivity (that is, the case for open-access prayer, which is currently sanctioned by the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, as opposed to non-sectarian prayer, which the similarly-situated Forsyth County, NC, to which the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put a sternly worded end). Crawford concludes,
It is time we all understand that it is only by prohibiting our government from prescribing or supporting any religious position that our Constitution secures our freedom to hold our own religious views.
Comment on Crawford’s editorial here.
Several weeks later, Donald E. Bowles responded at length (comment here) to Crawford’s assertion that the Founders’ “individual religious views do not preempt what they wrote in the Constitution”. Bowles rejected Crawford’s invocation of Jefferson’s explicitly secular letter to the Danbury Baptists, cited various Christian invocations that pepper the writings of the Founders, and ultimately disagreed with the current Supreme Court precedent against prayer in the house of government:
Crawford, in his commentary, spoke of the Supreme Court making an error in deciding slaves were property and had no rights. I readily agree with his opinion. A later court reversed that decision.
Based on the flimsy reasoning concerning the separation of church and state, I hope some day a new group of justices will also reverse that decision. All one has to do is look at how morals have declined to see the results of that decision.
It seems extremely unlikely that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation in light of the Deist beliefs held by most of them. Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Paine and many more influential founders spoke critically of the accepted Christian religions of the day. Bowles was correct to point out that many of these men attended and served in churches. However, this was most likely a necessity of the times needed to gain any social and political standing.
On Jefferson’s letter:
Bowles makes a slightly more legitimate argument in pointing out that Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists was not part of the Constitution. The letter captured the idea of how the Establishment Clause was meant to be interpreted. In 1801, the minority Baptists expressed concern that they would be discriminated against if the government sided with a majority religion. They felt that religion should not be part of government. Jefferson expressed his agreement, citing the Establishment Clause in his reply and using the now-famous phrase “separation between Church and State.”
Pegram’s response testifies to the value of informed and charitable debate, and it’s worth reading in full. One of the great contributions of our group, in my opinion, has been its infusion into the regional popular discourse via media outlets like the RT, and i hope that our members will keep it up!
To follow the pulse of popular opinion in the valleys, subscribe to the Roanoke Times RoundTable blog (though beware that it is a hostile environment).