Most Americans, regardless of their religious affiliation, think it is praiseworthy when a superstar volunteers to sing in a prison. Kanye West’s recent visit to two Harris County, Texas jails was applauded by the prisoners themselves, the county sheriff, and most citizens. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone against his charitable concert.
Enter the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group, which is dedicated to removing religion from the public square, condemned the visit as an “egregious” violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The organization’s complaint is grounded in the fiction that the First Amendment requires a “wall of separation” between church and state. It does no such thing.
Consider the first federal Congress, the very body that drafted the First Amendment. One of its first acts was to appoint congressional chaplains. Shortly after doing so, it reauthorized the Northwest Ordinance, which holds that “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
More striking still, on the day after the House of Representatives approved the final wording of the First Amendment, Elias Boudinot, later president of the American Bible Society, proposed that Congress ask the president to recommend a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. In response to objections that such practices mimicked European customs, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, according to a contemporary newspaper account, found thanksgiving “not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point.”
This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution.
Note that Sherman appealed directly to the Bible to support Boudinot’s proposal. His argument won the day. The House of Representatives agreed with Sherman, and the Senate agreed with the House. President George Washington agreed with Congress. On Oct. 3, 1789, he issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, which said, in part:
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.
I do recommend … the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious
Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications
to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and
other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform
our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national
government a blessing to all the People.
All Americans, but especially members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, might consider reading his proclamation this Thanksgiving.
Washington was not alone in issuing calls for prayer. Similar proclamations were routinely issued by the Continental and Confederation Congresses and Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison.
Jefferson, it is true, refused to issue such formal calls for prayer, yet even he closed his second inaugural address by noting that he would need “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old” and asked his listeners to join with me in supplications, that he [God] will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friends, and approbation of all nations.”
America’s founders did not want Congress to establish a national church, and many opposed establishments at the state level as well. Yet in no way, shape, or form did they desire to build a wall of separation between church and state.
No prisoner should be compelled to attend a religious event — concert or otherwise — but there is no evidence that this happened in Harris County. Kanye West’s performance should be widely applauded, not condemned by Scrooges with a faulty understanding of the First Amendment. And citizens of faith might consider heeding Washington’s admonition to spend part of Thanksgiving Day “rendering unto [God] our sincere and humble thanks for his kind care and protection of the people of this country.”
Mark David Hall (@MDH_GFU) is Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University and author of “Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth From Historical Truth.”
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.