By Kathryn Huth
“Faith, our deep religious heritage and tradition is a big part of what it means to be an American.”
At Christmastime, Americans were reacquainted with religious symbols and practices like public prayer. Last month, beloved Christmas movies framed these practices as heartwarming, but public prayer has not been welcomed in today’s popular culture.
U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, quoted above, was recently under fire because of his participation in public prayer on the House floor after he was elected Speaker of the House. In a CNBC Squawk Box interview afterwards, the host questioned the act in light of the “separation of church and state”.
In response, Speaker Johnson thoughtfully rebuffed the host by explaining that the phrase was pulled out of context from a letter of Thomas Jefferson’s. Johnson stressed that given the original context, it’s clear the idea was intended to stop the government from encroaching upon the church, not the other way around.
Speaker Johnson went on in his response saying, “When the founders set this system up, they wanted a vibrant expression of faith in the public square because they believed a general moral consensus and virtue was necessary to maintain this grand experiment and self-governance we created; a government of, by, and for the people.”
The clarification that faith is an integral part of society and government as an extension of society completely upends popular culture’s misunderstanding of “separation of church and state”.
In the exchange, New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin insinuates that including any religious morality in government should be prevented but is this a defensible perspective to hold? Should prayer on the House floor cease and how much does the law and morality overlap?
While many modern legal philosophers believe the law and morality do not overlap, this is an untenable position.
The law acts the same way a responsible parent acts- it punishes undesirable behavior in citizens and rewards good behavior thereby creating an orderly household. How can you decide that murder is punishable and giving to charity is desirable, for example, without interacting with ideas of good and evil? Even the preference of an ordered society to a disordered society is a choice imbued with moral preference, a good choice that deters crime and violence.
Undeniably, there are harmful and unnecessary laws. For example, Arkansas’ law which says that, “no person shall sound the horn on a vehicle at any place where cold drinks or sandwiches are served after 9:00 p.m.” and the Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th century. We know the law is not a perfect expression of morality. However, the law’s imperfection doesn’t negate the fact that the law is a moral exercise, and the observance of immoral laws reaffirms this truth.
Since morality is expressed in the law, we need objective morality from religious faith in public spheres. When faith is abandoned, there is no longer a groundwork for morality. Instead, values are embraced subjectively which means “good” and “evil” can be defined arbitrarily. This can lead to horrific outcomes like the legalization of the Holocaust and other legislation that undermines human worth.
Irreligious elites tell religious citizens to, “Leave your ideas about God at home, don’t bring them into the workplace!” But what fills the moral void left behind? Some might argue that we only need reason and common sense to make good laws, but there is no such thing as a “good” law anymore when you abandon objective morality.
Consequently, it is absolutely vital for public officials to express virtue (found in religion) in government. It allows for moral consensus and adds moral substance to public discourse. We need standards from objective morality to buffer society against universally heinous crimes being legitimized by law. Without religious faith,, the definition of “goodness” gets washed away by waves of political fads- take former Harvard president Claudine Gay’s waffling on the morality of genocide for example. Religious expressions should be continuously encouraged in public spheres, especially in government, not questioned.
Kathryn Huth graduated from California Polytechnic State University and works as a Fellow at the Clare Boothe Luce Center for Conservative Women.