National Day of Prayer: Alive, Well and Legal in Tennessee

National Day of Prayer celebrations are perfectly legal in Tennessee, despite a recent court ruling in Wisconsin. That means any mayor or city or county council in Tennessee is free to officially recognize the National Day of Prayer, even in government-owned facilities.

Considering the current state of affairs in Washington and across the country, the National Day of Prayer, scheduled this year for Thursday, May 6, is more important than ever. The day has deep roots in our nation’s history to which some organizations would like to lay the axe.

This annual event, which reminds citizens of the value of uniting in prayer for our country and its leaders, goes back to 1775 when the Continental Congress issued a resolution calling for a public day of prayer. In 1952, President Truman signed into law a resolution by Congress to set aside a day each year as a “National Day of Prayer,” and then in 1988, the law was amended by Congress during President Reagan’s term to make that day the first Thursday in May. Thus a national day of thanksgiving and prayer has been an essential part of our country’s heritage and culture. Historically, all 50 governors have issued proclamations in honor of this day.

Some Are Trying to Intimidate Those Who Pray

Not surprisingly, those who would like nothing better than to remove all vestiges of Christianity from our country try hard each year to prevent this event from happening by disseminating false and misleading information to governmental officials. Among other things, atheists and activist groups attempt to convince our state and local government leaders that recognizing this important day is illegal and violates the Constitution.

However, now they have taken their attack on this event to another level. The Freedom from Religion Foundation filed suit in a federal court in Wisconsin to have the law setting aside the first day in May declared unconstitutional as an establishment of religion. And last week, a federal judge ruled in its favor. At this time, we are waiting to see if the U.S. Justice Department will appeal the ruling. You can learn more about the history and legal precedent involved from the Rutherford Institute.

However, that decision is not binding in Tennessee. So there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional in a mayor or city or county council in Tennessee officially recognizing the National Day of Prayer. Furthermore, if a city or county allows a government-owned facility to be used by private groups and organizations for nongovernmental purposes, then use of that facility generally cannot be withheld for observances of the National Day of Prayer.

Tennessee Should Lead the Way in Invoking God’s Protection

In his Farewell Address in 1796, President Washington gave our country sage advice when he said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. [T]he mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them.” Public officials throughout Tennessee should lead the way in invoking God’s protection and guidance over our state by issuing proclamations supporting the National Day of Prayer.

Please encourage your mayor, city council members, county commissioners, and other elected officials to do so. And if they encounter objections or threats of litigation by individuals or groups opposed to this lawful exercise of governmental authority, or to the use of courthouses, county meeting rooms, and other public places for citizens to gather and pray together on May 6, please do not hesitate to contact the Family Action Council of Tennessee or our friends at the Alliance Defense Fund.

What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus would keep his oath to uphold the Constitution. And if a law were constitutional, he would consider whether it was an appropriate exercise of the authority which he ordained for civil government, and whether it crossed over the line into authority which he ordained to individuals, the family and the church. Will we get it wrong sometimes? Yes, but even a wrong political decision cannot separate us from the love of God.

In a recent FAN in which I discussed a potential “positive” from the federal health care bill, I was asked by a reader what I thought “Jesus would do.” Well, I’m not Jesus, and as my former Senate colleagues will tell you, I often said that I am one whose feet are made of clay. But for the theologically inclined, here are my reflections, which I’m sure will generate more feedback than I can respond to.

Jesus Would Keep His Oath

First, as I mentioned in my original article, the first issue for a federal representative is always, “Is the proposed law constitutional?” So, if I were in Congress and trying to be like Jesus, I would have to consider fidelity to my oath to uphold the Constitution. Because Jesus was “the Truth” and because it is impossible for God to lie, I could not violate my oath and vote for a bill that is unconstitutional. Whether the federal health care bill is constitutional is another question, but if I thought it were, I could not vote for it.  Jesus takes our “yeas and nays” pretty seriously.

Jesus Wouldn’t Confuse Government with Individual Authority

But if I believed the national health care bill were constitutional, what other things might I be called upon to think about if I were to try to think like Jesus (and I have no insight any greater than any other person who takes the Bible seriously, and some might think I have less than most)? Believing that God has created a social order governed by his law and judgments, I would want to make sure that I didn’t vote for something that would cause civil government to violate God’s created design by exercising authority which God did not give to government when he ordained and established it.

In that regard, it seems to me that the jurisdictional authority of civil government is very, very different from that of individuals. For example, orthodox Christianity has historically and rightly noted that God denied to individuals the right to execute God’s judgment and wrath in the closing verses of Romans 12, while he granted this authority to civil government in the verses that immediately follow in Romans 13. I would note, too, in I Peter 2:14, that the magistrate is to punish evil yet only to commend/praise the good. This instruction and admonition seems to me consistent with Jesus’ answer in Luke 12:13 to the man who complained that his brother was not dividing up the father’s inheritance according to law. Jesus left the legal issue to the civil magistrate, who had certain authority over actions (there probate matters), but Jesus chose to exercise that authority which only God has—authority over matters of the heart (there the man’s greed).

Seems to me that this is consistent with the picture of a magistrate bearing a sword (relative to actions that can be judged) and the distinction between active punishment of evil and only commending/praising the good.

We often say, “You can’t legislate morality,” but that’s not exactly true. All law is a reflection and enactment into law of someone’s moral and ethical values. But what we can’t do is make people live moral and ethical lives. We can’t make people be good. But government can punish evil acts (but then not even all evil acts, the reasons for which I don’t have time to address) which effectively affirms its opposite—the good.

Jesus Would Love Us in Spite of Our Wrong Conclusions

So, I submit that what Jesus would have me do as an individual person is not the same as what Jesus would have the ruler do, for they have different roles and functions in God’s social order. We do not do well when we confuse the different institutions in God’s social order—the individual, the family, the church and the civil government. In fact, I would submit that when one oversteps its bounds, it does harm to the others as the equilibrium of the social order gets out of balance.

These distinctions reflect an historical understanding of Scripture that has been lost to modern Christianity that seems to have focused on grace to the exclusion of truth and has often despised as “old-fashioned” the wealth of knowledge we could glean from wise, godly men who have studied and worked out Christian doctrine over the centuries.

What would Jesus do? I know this much, as his child he would still love me, even if I reached the wrong conclusion.

A Pound of Cure Is Not the Cure

The General Assembly should rescind its previous calls for a national convention to restrain the size of government because of the great uncertainties that surround such a convention. A national convention is a “pound of cure” when the “ounce of prevention” of voting more wisely in elections could be all we need.

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And a runaway federal government and the disregard of federalism are certainly in need of a cure. But this week the Tennessee General Assembly will have an opportunity to begin squeezing a pound of cure back into the proverbial tube. Let’s hope they’ll do it, and that we’ll then apply the necessary ounce of prevention.

The issue at hand is the calling of a federal constitutional convention. In the 1970’s and 1980’s Tennessee, along with a number of other states, adopted Resolutions calling for a federal constitutional convention. No doubt, the Resolutions were adopted in response to and out of frustration with the increasing size of the federal government and its unfunded mandates. With the passage of the national health care bill, that frustration has only intensified. But this time the intensity is being expressed not just by frustrated state lawmakers but also by the average citizen, as evidenced in part by the growing TEA Party movement.

No Limit to What a Convention Might Do to Our Constitution

In response to this well-intentioned enthusiasm to fight back and curb the federal government, some states are now looking at making a call for a federal constitutional convention. And right now, with Tennessee still being officially on record from years ago as having called for a constitutional convention, and with the passage of few more Resolutions by other states, the magic number of states required to call a national convention will be reached. Presto, the undefined and unrestrained machinery for a national federal constitutional convention will be put in motion. But as frustrated as conservatives can be, calling a constitutional convention is like applying a pound of cure when there is a means of prevention available to us, if we will use it.

The reason that a convention is a bad idea is that there is no limit to what a convention can do with our Constitution. We may think we’re calling it for one purpose, only to find out that the delegates have done something entirely different. In case you don’t think that can happen, then you’ve forgotten that our current Constitution was the product of a convention called by the states to only make suggested changes to the then-existing Articles of Confederation. The delegates were never authorized to scrap the Articles of Confederation, but they did and that is the national precedent for future action.

Not only is there no limit on what the convention could come up with, including a whole new proposed constitution, but we have no idea how the delegates will be determined. The U.S. Constitution does not specify how delegates are to be determined. But if the same kind of process is used to determine who will go to the convention for us as is used to give us activist judges, then Katie bar the door. We cannot assume that the same liberal groups that currently ignore our Constitution and control Congress won’t find some way to make sure they control the convention, too. We’d be naïve to think otherwise.

States’ Rights Made Even Worse?

It is of little comfort that some would respond by saying that a new constitution, if bad, would never be ratified by the requisite number of states. The reason that argument is of little consolation is that there is nothing to restrict the convention from setting up different ratification provisions. The Constitution we now have was ratified by a process contrary to that required by Articles of Confederation which the original 13 states were under. With some pushing for abolition of the Electoral College for a straight majority vote for President, who is to say that such people, if in control of the convention, would not move toward a populist approval process that ignores the sovereignty of the several states? In other words, the very states’ rights problems for which a convention would be called could actually be made worse.

For that reason, state Rep. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) has filed House Joint Resolution 30 to rescind all Resolutions adopted by previous General Assemblies that would call for a national federal constitutional convention. For once, with the passage of this resolution, the proverbial genie can be put back in the bottle.

The Real Solution: Vote Wisely and Vote Often

Of course, the question then is, “If we put back our ‘pound of cure,’ what is our remedy?” Actually, not unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we’ve had the remedy all along, but we have failed to apply it faithfully. It’s the “ounce of prevention” called elections. As we go to the polls in August to pick our party nominees for the November election and then as we go to the polls in November, each state can apply its own “ounce of prevention” by sending to Congress representatives whose first question is always, “Is the proposed law in question clearly constitutional?” and if so, whose second question is, “Does it respect the sovereignty of the several states, and is it a matter best left to those more closely situated to the people?” On many issues the one-size-fits-all federal government solution does not, in fact, fit all.

If we, along with the number of states required to call a national constitutional convention, will do just that—vote wisely—the specter of applying an untested pound of cure may not be needed.

Positives from the Health Care Bill

By mandating that citizens buy a consumer product—health insurance—or face a penalty, the stage is set for the U.S. Supreme Court to tell us whether the U.S. Government is one of limited, enumerated powers or a national government free to do anything it pleases. For a constitutionally sick country, it’s a diagnosis we need to know.

Last night Congress sent to the President for his approval the health care bill which the U.S. Senate passed last Christmas Eve. But the bill may accomplish one very important positive thing.

While there is much not to like in the federal health care bill, mandating that citizens purchase a consumer product—health insurance—will undoubtedly bring about a number of lawsuits over the constitutionality of the law by a combination of one or more of the following: advocacy groups, private businesses, individuals and even states. In fact, attorneys general from some states have already said they will sue to enjoin the application of the insurance purchase mandate to their citizens.

For example, the Tennessee State Senate has already passed a bill (Senate Bill 3498) that asserts that Tennesseans have the right to make their own health care decisions, including the purchase of insurance, and instructs the state Attorney General to sue to protect that right. The bill is scheduled to be heard this Wednesday in the Industrial Impact Subcommittee of the state House of Representatives.

The positive, good thing that may come from all of this is that we will find out just how broad the powers of the federal government are under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. In a country that is increasingly constitutionally sick (ignorant of Constitutional and historical principles or, worse yet, unconcerned about constitutional principles), a “diagnosis” by the U.S. Supreme Court of the extent to which our Constitution is on life support is needed.

States Rights vs. Federal Muscle

Just as a person with an unusual physical ailment may not want to know what is wrong for fear it is really bad yet simultaneously may want to know in order to resolve the issue one way or the other, we are in need of a diagnosis of just how much power the Congress has.

The law the state House is considering this week, if ultimately passed, will set up a classic case of state vs. federal government, with the state saying its citizens have certain freedoms and the federal government saying, “No, you don’t.” It will be a “civil war” of sorts waged in the courtroom.

The issue we must confront if the health care bill is upheld as a constitutionally permissible exercise of the commerce clause power is what else may Washington tell us we have to buy. For example, different states have different laws about how motorists are protected financially in the event of an automobile accident. Some states have mandatory automobile insurance; others do not. But if the health care bill is constitutionally permissible, then what is to keep Congress from mandating that every citizen must purchase automobile insurance and setting up an insurance czar to make sure you do it.

In other words, if we accept that Congress can mandate the purchase of one consumer product, what other products can they mandate we buy or suffer fines and penalties?

Regardless of the conclusion the U.S. Supreme Court reaches, we will have a diagnosis of the health of our Constitution and the health of the notion of federalism and states’ rights. But like the sick patient, we need a diagnosis. The quickest route to restore constitutional health and take states’ rights off life support is to know how bad the sickness is for then we, as citizens, will know what we need to do.

Two Americas on Memorial Day

This Memorial Day, President Obama’s absence in Arlington Cemetery has evoked an insightful observation that is too good not to share.

Sometimes other people say things so well and put things in such perspective that it is best just to share it. So, with no further ado, let me encourage you to read these thoughts on how the President’s celebration of Memorial Day reflects two Americas.

This year President Obama will take in a Memorial Day service at a national cemetery where he and his family will be vacationing, rather than participate in the ceremonial laying of a wreath at the tomb of The Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. His absence in Arlington has evoked lots of comments, but the insightful observation of William R. Forstchen, Professor of History at Montreat College, is too good not to share. We all would do well to pay heed and spend some time in reflection on Monday about the significance of the day.