Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Faith Works 9-13-08
Jeff Gill

Politicians at Prayer

With our bicentennial year winding down for Licking County, I’ve been doing a last few presentations of my Chaplain David Jones research, which is (in my opinion) a fun and fascinating look at Revolutionary and early American history through the lens of a Welsh Baptist preacher who pointed many of our earliest settlers to these valleys.

Key to my story is the setting of northern New Jersey in 1772, and the role of “the established church” in the debates over independence.

The reason the Founders were so specific about “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the first words of the Bill of Rights, was that “establishment” means, essentially, that the pastor’s salary and basic church expenses are paid out of the general revenue. The “state church” is paid for out of everyone’s taxes, and while “nonconformists” and “recusants” and other “separatists” had varying rights through English history to gather and worship on their own, you still paid your church tax like everyone else, and then had to dig deeper to pay for your Welsh Baptist pastor and chapel.

This is still true in England for the Church of England, for the Lutheran Church in Germany and other Nordic nations, and was true for Congregationalists in Massachusetts into the 1830s.

Huh? After the Constitution passed?

Yup, we had a constitutional provision that there would be no national established church, but this being a federal republic, the states could and did have “establishment” in the early United States, Virginia holding onto her Anglican establishment beyond the point where Governor Thomas Jefferson hoped she would let go of such un-liberal institutions.

So Welsh Baptists in Freehold, New Jersey were very open to discussions of freedom and even independence, while fervent Tories loyal to Great Britain, like their Governor William Franklin, Ben’s son, were furious at such “traitorous talk.”

You’ll note, then, that “establishment” has a very particular meaning – taxes going directly to support faith communities – while it is counterbalanced by “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Anxieties all around seem to have been provoked by video footage of the Governor of Alaska, speaking at a youth leadership conference in a church, while referring to the impending deployment of her own son to the Middle East.

It might be useful to look directly at a transcript of what she actually said:

“Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country,” says Gov. Sarah Palin (in video of the talk posted at the church’s Web site). Pray “that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure we’re praying for: that there is a plan and that plan is God’s plan.”

I have to admit that I’m baffled by what folks are getting into such a lather about. I’ve heard almost exactly those words used in churches where I know the pastor praying is quite strongly against the Iraq war. No one wants to assume that we know the full and precise application of God’s will in any one given situation, but to ask for guidance and the wisdom and strength to follow divine promptings is S.O.P. (standard operating procedure) in the life of faith.

In fact, some weeks back Barack Obama wrote in a note he thought would remain private, but that his campaign confirmed once it appeared in print, after his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem: “Lord, Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.”

Good for him!

Neither of these candidates for high public office are talking about anything even remotely like establishment of religion, and the fact that they have a humble and hopeful understanding of what “the free exercise thereof” looks like is encouraging to a country parson like myself.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story of prayer in the public square at

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