Recently, the House of Representatives began active consideration of HR 2175, the World War II Memorial Prayer Act of 2013. The bill would direct the Secretary of the Interior to install a plaque in Washington, D.C.’s World War II Memorial inscribed with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s iconic D-Day prayer. “Almighty God,” the prayer began, “Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.” A similar bill overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives in 2012 by a vote of 386-26.
In response, a coalition of liberal and religious organizations sent a letter to the Chairman and the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, where the bill is currently under consideration. The letter comes out in opposition to the bill, arguing that the plaque “shows a lack of respect for [religious] diversity” and “send[s] a strong message to those who do not share the same religious beliefs expressed in this prayer that they are excluded…”
Three of the organizations are church-state separation groups such as American United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU. Three are Jewish, one is Hindu, one is nontheistic, while the only Christian organization opposing the plaque is the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS).
The United Methodist Church’s official stance on separation of church and state is somewhat nuanced. On the pro-plaque side, the UMC does allow for “interaction” between church and state and denounces the “abolition of all religious expression from public life.” Supporting the GBCS’ position is the statement that the state should not promote particular religious beliefs. But that also includes promoting “irreligion,” which could be construed to include opposing any and all references to religion.
It’s my interpretation that well-meaning United Methodists could disagree about the propriety of the plaque. These disagreements would arise from the same questions that have driven debates on church-state separation for years. Are public religious displays appropriate if they also have a historical relevance? Are prayers an “establishment of religion” under the First Amendment of the Constitution, even if they’re nondenominational? To what extent are public references to God merely ceremonial, and to what extent are they proselytism? It’s worth noting that the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, is a United Methodist. When the House of Representatives passed a bill to create the plaque in 2012, not one of the 32 Republican and 16 Democratic United Methodists voted against it.
For what its worth, the Supreme Court has typically found that religious displays on government-owned property are typically constitutional if they also have a secular commemorative purpose. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled on two separate displays of the Ten Commandments, ruling one constitutional and the other unconstitutional. The difference was that one display had a purely religious message, while the other display’s religious message was “part of what is a broader moral and historical message reflective of a cultural heritage.”
Accordingly, there are already plenty of religiously-themed statements and icons on national monuments in DC. Not far, from the World War Two Memorial is the Lincoln Memorial, which includes President Abrahama Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address. The address is considered one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, but also one of his most overtly religious. Take the following excerpt:
Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln’s address contains no less than four allusions and two direct quotations of Biblical verses, and ruminations on Divine providence, the power of prayer, the occasional harshness of God’s justice and the sinful nature of slavery. I submit that if a politician made this speech today, complete with the implication that the deaths of hundreds of thousands are God’s punishment for America’s sin, he or she would blasted for divisively pandering to Christian fundamentalists. Basically every church-state argument the letter makes against the FDR prayer plaque could be made against the Lincoln Memorial: that it “shows a lack of respect” for religious diversity, that it inappropriately “honor[s] the ‘power of prayer’ in a national memorial,” that it “co-opt[s] religion for political purposes,” and that it would “send a strong message to those who do not share the same religious beliefs… that they are excluded and ‘not full members of the… community.’”
Roosevelt’s prayer is comparatively tame and nonsectarian. A Christian, Jew or Muslim could pray along with no qualms. Were it not for the constant invocations to Almighty God and a prayer for the souls of fallen soldiers, the prayer would read as a generic wartime speech, albeit a beautifully written speech. It reads exactly like the sort of prayer that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said would be constitutional in a legislative context: designed to include and “speak in nonsectarian terms, common to diverse religious groups.” And like the display of the Ten Commandments previously found constitutional, the prayer plaque would be funded by private sources and be situated in a space with several other quotes and symbols honoring a secular purpose: remembering those who fought and died in WWII.
As we near the 70th anniversary of D-Day, people from nations on both sides of the Atlantic will take the time to remember the 160,000 Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy, and the over 4,000 men who gave their lives. But memories of D-Day for most Americans did not mean beaches and drop zones. It meant hoping and praying for the fortunes of their sons, husbands, and brothers fighting a war across an ocean.
In the midst of hope, despair, and uncertainty, an American president addressed the nation and addressed his God. An estimated 100 million Americans tuned in for President Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer, taking part in what historian John Meacham estimated was possibly the largest mass prayer in history. It was a seminal moment in American history, one that will soon fade from living memory. It’s a shame that some believe it is a moment unworthy of remembrance in our nation’s capitol.
I encourage you to listen to the D-Day prayer below: