I remain bemused at the amount of fuss being made over the proclamation by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas (and echoed by our own Gov. LePage) to declare Aug. 6 a day of prayer for our nation.

The way things are going in Washington, Aug. 2 probably would have been a better date for praying for the country.

But Perry (and LePage) have come under fire for somehow violating “the separation of church and state.”

Like Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride,” I have to say, “You keep using that phrase, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Thomas Jefferson, who is the originator of the phrase, certainly did not mean what the Supreme Court said the words meant when they used them to drive many (but, curiously, not all) expressions of religious belief out of the public schools.

Jefferson, remember, wrote the Declaration of Independence (though he had plenty of editing help from the other delegates to the meeting at which it was adopted). But he had nothing to do with the Constitution, as he was ambassador to France when it was drafted.

Just as surveys show that many people think the words, “God helps those who help themselves,” are in the Bible when they are not, many others wrongly think that Jefferson’s words are in the Constitution.

Jefferson wrote them in 1802, long after the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, in a letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Conn., who were concerned that their form of religious expression could be considered not an essential liberty but something that could be granted or taken away at the discretion of the government.

Jefferson, whose own faith was strongly rationalistic and individualistic, wanted to reassure them that the national government was prohibited from promoting any official form of religious expression because “a wall of separation” barred the state from the “establishment” of a religion.

And “establishment” was a technical term: It meant a specific religion was the official faith. In England, the Anglican church was “established,” the king was its head and Parliament approved its bishops, who also sat in the House of Lords.

Members of other faiths, including the Puritan and Methodist offshoots of Anglicanism, and most specifically Roman Catholicism, had far fewer rights and privileges and often felt the weight of official disapproval of their beliefs.

The First Amendment thus prohibited establishment (at least at the federal level — several states maintained it for various church bodies for decades), but after World War II, a wave of revisionist secularization that had swept through our academic and political institutions for decades surfaced in the Supreme Court.

Instead of banning favoritism toward any particular faith, the Court began handing down rulings that, in a muddled and confused fashion, tended to hold that the Constitution (which by now had had most of its protections extended to cover state actions as well as federal ones) prohibited any acknowledgement of Americans’ faith in many official areas — most specifically, in the context of public education.

Thus we began to see rulings that said not only could school systems not write prayers to be said in class — arguably a First Amendment violation at any time — but that individual students did not have the right to offer expressions of their faith at graduation ceremonies.

Start-of-day “moments of silence” that could be used for mental individual prayer were also banned, even though no student could possibly hear another one’s private thoughts.

Similarly, sports teams were barred from prayer even at their members’ own initiative before games, and baccalaureate services were first removed from schools and then barred completely in many systems.

Thus, a reasonable, rational limit on government action was transformed first by revisionist historical thinking and then by the courts into a prohibition on the free actions of individual Americans to express their faith in school settings.

True, the court has not been consistent in its hostility. For example, the justices have ruled that if a school system permits community groups to use its facilities for after-hours meetings, it cannot bar faith-based groups from access.

Portland schools offer Muslim students rooms to offer daily prayers, while in the wider sphere of public venues, a Jewish group lights a huge menorah at City Hall on Hanukkah.

Still, the silliness has even led to so-far futile efforts to remove “one nation under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” (found in the fourth verse of the Star-Spangled Banner) from our money.

In truth, official proclamations (using government-provided pens and stationery!) calling on the Deity to aid our nation are as old as our first president. Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation said it was “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 “

And Abraham Lincoln, in his 1863 proclamation, listed the benefits the nation had received even in the midst of a Civil War, and added:

“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”

So, if you have a problem with Perry and LePage, then you have a problem with Washington and Lincoln, too.

M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

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