Despite President Donald Trump’s oft-repeated claim that the coronavirus pandemic would “miraculously” disappear this summer, it hasn’t happened. In some states, cases are spiking.
Government officials are dealing with this in different ways. Some are scaling back plans to reopen. Others are mandating the wearing of masks outside the home.
And others are prodding people to pray.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) announced three days of fasting and prayer, which ends today. Edwards encouraged state residents to take part, remarking, “I encourage and welcome people of all faiths and denominations to participate.” He added, “This will be the spiritual diet and exercise that I, as a Catholic Christian, believe is very important, anyway.”
In Cache County, Utah, the County Council passed a resolution calling on residents to “humbly petition Almighty God for his tender mercies” and to beseech God for “healing, comfort [and] wisdom.” (Similar resolutions have been passed in other Utah communities.)
At the federal level, Trump issued a resolution declaring March 15 “a National Day of Prayer for All Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic and for our National Response Efforts.”
One of the problems with these resolutions is that they assume a certain level of religiosity is common among all Americans, that “real” Americans naturally embrace faith during trying times.
Consider the opening sentence from Trump’s resolution: “In our times of greatest need, Americans have always turned to prayer to help guide us through trials and periods of uncertainty.”
But that simply isn’t true. Undoubtedly, many Americans do turn to prayer during difficult times, but plenty of others do not – and their numbers are increasing. Polls show growing numbers of “nones” in America (people who say they have no religion), and, according to the Pew Forum, the number of atheists now stands at 4 percent, with agnostics at 5 percent. That’s 29 million Americans who are not inclined to pray – no small number.
Furthermore, plenty of religious believers feel that their faith is too important to be dictated by the state. They argue that they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves when, how and where to pray and don’t need mandates from any level of government to tell them to do it.
During the War of 1812, Congress passed a few resolutions calling for prayer, and President James Madison reluctantly signed them. But Madison, who was a primary author of the First Amendment, was capable of admitting when he was wrong. Later in his life, he wrote an essay critical of government proclamations calling on citizens to pray.
“The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one government in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea,” wrote Madison. “But reason and the principles of the Christian religion require that if all the individuals composing a nation were of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected through the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives. In a nation composed of various sects, some alienated widely from others, and where no agreement could take place through the former, the interposition of the latter is doubly wrong.”
Madison understood that our nation is so diverse that government-sponsored calls for prayer can be divisive. It’s best to leave this matter in the hands of religious leaders, where people are free to embrace it or ignore it, as guided by conscience.
As the pandemic continues to rage, government officials would do well to heed Madison’s wise words.