On March 30, 1863, the United States was two years into a devastating civil war. The outcome of the war and thus the future of the "United" States of America were still very much in doubt; almost a quarter of a million Americans had already been killed. Against this backdrop, the senior leaders of our country recognized the problems facing America were bigger than any could handle and sought the aid of a Higher Power: the Secretary of State is reported to have written the draft of a Proclamation passed by the U.S. Senate and signed by President Abraham Lincoln calling on the people of our country to pray.
Exactly 150 years later, one wonders how much worse things will have to get before our current leaders find the humility to again seek the aid of the Almighty in sincere prayer.
The deck is surely stacked against such a reprisal, to be sure. Over the last half-century we have progressively pushed God further out of public view and deeper into the shadows. Prayers to God can no longer be made in public schools. The Ten Commandments can no longer hang in courtrooms. Even crosses that have existed on public lands as historic monuments over decades have been subjected to litigation for their removal. Many will patriotically defend such actions as being required by the First Amendment and suggest our Founding Fathers desired religion to be restricted from public life. Such a view is difficult to square with the historical record.
In his farewell address, George Washington noted, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. ... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." Even Thomas Jefferson, who is most often cited for his "wall of separation' letter" to the Danbury Baptists, nevertheless wrote of his views on God in the only book he published ("Notes on the State of Virginia"), "and can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? ... Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."
Our forefathers held religious morals in high esteem. Yet unlike our patriotic ancestors, we seem to regard restrictions on religious expression to be evidence of an enlightened mind. After decades of religious retrenchment in this country, it is fair to ask 'how are we doing?' Evidence suggests public morality in America has degraded in proportion to the distance we have pushed religion away.
The first act of mass murder that really shocked the United States came in April 1999 when 12 children were murdered by two fellow students in the infamous Columbine High School massacre. Over the next 12 years, and culminating with the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011, there were 24 additional instances of mass murder -- a huge number by any accounting, especially covering such a short period. Yet, in the year 2012 alone, there were seven cases, the last being the murder of 26 men, women and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
One doesn't have to be a teetotaling monk to recognize the enormous amount of violence and amoral activity depicted in most television shows and on the big screen today. We've seen an alarming number of major corporations go under and destroy the lives of thousands of employees as a result of criminal negligence. Senior political leaders, famous army generals and numerous well-known sports figures have gone to jail because of illegal activities or been banished in shame because they were caught in egregious immorality. The country has only recently extracted itself from one nearly-decade long war and remains embroiled in another -- while war clouds hover over Iran and North Korea. The economy continues to sputter along, but with the growing level of public debt our long-term economic outlook is uncertain. Meanwhile, our political system seems stuck on 'gridlock' and occasionally teeters on the edge of paralysis. If ever there were a need to inquire of the Creator for help, this would seem to be it.
Isn't it ironic that it would be political suicide for any of our elected leaders of today to follow in the footsteps of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln? The 150th anniversary of the publication of President Lincoln's Proclamation would be a good time to contemplate on the actions of those who came before us.
It is perhaps useful to point out that barely three months after this request for prayer was published, we fought in the battle of Gettysburg, which is viewed by most historians as the turning point that eventually led to the victory for the Union Army and the preservation of the United States. May we as a nation recognize again the need to pray to the Almighty and may He again bless this country. Below is an excerpt from President Lincoln's Proclamation that could be prayed verbatim today:
"...We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness..."