The First Amendment to the Constitution requires a strict separation of church and state–so say, at any rate, contemporary American liberals. And we can’t just ignore them, because they have the contemporary Supreme Court on their side. The Court’s institutional power, however, does not necessarily guarantee that its interpretation of the Constitution will be correct. In this case, the Court is wrong. It says that the Establishment Clause does not permit government to lend any support to religion at all, and that this is the meaning of the Clause as it was originally understood. But history does not support this interpretation.
A piece of history undermining the contemporary Court’s interpretation that is particularly relevant this week is the long tradition–as old as the Constitution itself–of presidents of the United States proclaiming a national day of Thanksgiving. The first such proclamation was issued by George Washington at the request of the First Congress, the same Congress that was at the same time drafting the First Amendment to the Constitution. Here is a key part of what Washington said to the country in his official capacity as president:
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
That Washington could make such a proclamation, with no public controversy, suggests that the founding generation saw no problem with some governmental endorsement of religion, and that “strict separation” is accordingly an inaccurate interpretation of the Establishment Clause’s original meaning.
I develop this argument at greater length over at Public Discourse. You can read the whole article here. And here is my concluding paragraph:
Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for the blessings we have received, but also an opportunity to reflect on the traditions we have inherited—which are among the greatest of those blessings—and to ask ourselves whether they are being properly preserved. Strict separationism, consistently applied, would require us to throw out Thanksgiving as a religious holiday proclaimed by the president. Instead, we should embrace Thanksgiving as such a holiday, and recognize that it requires us to throw out strict separationism as a misguided interpretation of the Constitution.