I recently received a letter from Gov. Nikki Haley asking me to participate in “The Response.” I assume every minister in our state received this letter since it was addressed to “Dear Pastor.” According to the letter, South Carolinians are “torn apart, in crisis,” but this can be fixed if my congregation and I will join others for a “day of prayer” at the North Charleston Coliseum on Saturday, June 13.
I had assumed that this event was for all people of faith, but then I read on “The Response” website that “this is a time for Christians to come together to call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles.” So I’m guessing that Unitarian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, pagan and Baha’i South Carolinians are not invited to the North Charleston Coliseum, to say nothing of humanists, atheists, agnostics, skeptics or free thinkers. I realize that the majority of South Carolinians do call themselves Christian, but hey, the rest of us are South Carolinians, too.
So I will not be attending the governor’s day of prayer, because she didn’t actually mean to invite me, as I am the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. But even if she had, I would not attend. I am not against prayer, but I am for the Constitution, the First Amendment of which establishes a “wall of separation between church and state,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase. That wall protects the integrity of both government and religion. It prevents religious zealots from using the power and purse of the government to force their beliefs and practices on the rest of us, and it prevents overreaching politicians from intruding into religious affairs. Each institution does better when it minds its own business — when ministers pray and politicians pave roads.
Gov. Haley certainly has the right to pray, and every citizen in this state has the right to pray, but when she lends her name and her title to the call for a day of prayer, she is officially sanctioning religion, and in this case, a particular religion at that. The principle of separation means that our government is neutral in regard to religion. It neither promotes nor opposes any religion … at least it is not supposed to. Religious events that are so closely tied to elected officials that they look like officially sponsored events send the message that people of minority religions and nonreligious people are second-class citizens. Our governor is supposed to represent all South Carolinians, not just those of the majoritarian religion.
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Speaking of Jefferson, he was no fan of a government-sponsored day of prayer, even one called by the president. In a letter to a minister, he asserted, “Civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.” As a practical matter, we do not need public officials to tell us how to pray any more than we need preachers to tell us how to vote. As the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church & State, has observed, “Those who want to pray are perfectly capable of doing so without government instructions, and those who do not want to pray surely do not appreciate a government official telling them they should.”
I realize that in South Carolina, indeed across the South, it is tempting for politicians to overstep their civil authority and meddle in religious matters. Southern politicians win lots of votes by making a public display of their piety. The next time Gov. Haley prays, she might consider praying for the strength to resist that temptation … for her own spiritual health and for the health of our constitutional democracy.
Rev. Jones is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia and national trustee of Americans United for Separation of Church & State. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.