The Inauguration and the Separation of Church and State

On the first day of his presidency, Tuesday, January 20th, 2009, many of Barack Obama's first public gestures and words will be religious and arguably, extra-Constitutional. Not for that reason will these acts be any less American.

Before the Inauguration ceremony, the Obama family will caravan its way to a morning prayer service (not stipulated by the Constitution or any other written protocol).

[caption id="attachment_5725" align="aligncenter" width="205" caption="Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson gives the invocation during 'We Are One: Opening Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial' on Jan. 18"][/caption]

A few hours later, the country will witness President-elect Barack Obama bow his head in prayer as the Christian pastor he selected invokes blessings on his presidency (not foreseen in the Constitution). Then, in the very act of swearing his oath, Barack Hussein Obama will place his left hand on a Christian Bible and raise his right hand to heaven (neither gesture indicated by the Constitution), only to conclude the prescribed oath with a few extra-Constitutional words of his own: "so help me God".

When all is said and done, over a three day span of democratic pageantry, the world will have witnessed the most powerful political figure on the globe participate in about a dozen acts of humble prayer and worship.

He will have done so, not because he had to, not because legal documents required it of him but rather in congruence with a cultural legacy of a wildly successful American experiment, where a secular state both guarantees and encourages religious freedom and expression-public and private-for the common good of society.

This cultural legacy, rich in both patriotism and spirituality, was made possible by our Constitution's protection of the distinct roles of state and church--not by the former gagging the latter, as some wish were the case.

Purified from the negative experience of a nationalized religion during English and Colonial times, the drafters of our Constitution wisely determined that the best way to defend the purity of religion was to free it from the authority of the State. It was precisely because the Constitution placed no restraints on religious expression that George Washington felt free to begin the long tradition of taking the oath of office by swearing upon the Bible. It was precisely because the Constitution made no efforts to dictate or limit public religious practice, even by members of the State, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor chose to attend a prayer service at St. John's Episcopal Church on the morning of his inauguration, a precedent followed by presidents ever since. Likewise, the many other forms of prayer and remembrance we will have seen and will see at public venues during these days, developed out of our leaders' natural desire to express their deepest convictions about God, humanity, and the vocation of political service.

But in a free America, a legacy of uninhibited religious expression doesn't just happen; it is consequence of a long chain of good choices, first at the level of the domestic church (the passing along of faith in families) and then in the halls of government.

For two reasons I consider it less than sure that we will pass on this same legacy to our grandchildren's children. First, there is an insidious philosophy floating in the air, almost everywhere now--sometimes given the misnomer of "diversity" sometimes of "tolerance"--that can't stand the sight of a truly pluralistic society. This liberal philosophy's rigid dogma demands that all public expression of religious belief be dogma-less, free from any moral judgment of anyone else's behavior (have you heard about the silly debate over how the pastors chosen to participate in the inaugural events should refer to God in their inauguration prayers?) The long-term result of this twisted understanding of what should be a proper respect for individual differences, will be a soulless nation, much like much of Europe has become.

Second, I question our ability to continue this great legacy--unless we wake up--because our courts are well on their way to usurping local communities' and states' rights of self-determination, preventing cities and states of being who they are, not what the courts would like them to be. If President Obama and his successors nominate more judges who like to make law instead of interpreting it, we will become a country of ideology--sometimes conservative, usually liberal--but always subject to the whims of a few and nothing like a Republic.

For now, there is still freedom and opportunity for the ordinary citizen to protect and improve upon the great American experiment, where church and state play separate and complementary roles. If we let this critical moment slip away from us, some day, not far away, our legacy will look much different than what we are blessed to witness today.

God bless,

Father Jonathan

P.S. Here are links to interviews I did on FOX News Channel this weekend:

Faith and the Presidential Inauguration

'Miracle on the Hudson': Faith Prayer During a Time of Crisis

Father Jonathan Morris is author of the new book, "The Promise: God's Purpose and Plan for when Life Hurts". For information go to www.fatherjonathan.com

Father Jonathan Morris, who joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in May 2005, currently serves as a contributor and also writes for FoxNews.com.