Government to ministers: Preach or pay

Spoof alert – Taketh not this first part seriouslyeth.

Washington, DC (HUH) – Today, Barack Obama pledged to introduce legislation which would allow the President to set days of public prayer and thanksgiving. Obama said he had come to recognize the importance of prayer to the nation and he believes the President should set the tone.

However, a clause in the proposal has some religious leaders nervous. According to the Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving, ministers who decline to preach a sermon , “suited to the occasion,” on government appointed feast days will be fined if they cannot produce “a reasonable excuse” for the lack of sermonizing.

This has conservatives up in arms with complaints about the heavy hand of the government in religious matters. David Barton of Wallbuilders spoke out against the proposal. “I have concluded that Obama is the most Biblically hostile President ever, and this is just one more example,” Barton claimed.

In his book The Jefferson Lies, Barton mentions the Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving as an illustration of how Jefferson sought to introduce “religious activities into civil law.” In October 1776, as a legislator, Jefferson introduced a bill to reform and reword Virginia’s laws. The bill passed and the legislature appointed Jefferson and four others to accomplish the task. As the result, the group proposed 126 bills which were not immediately considered. The bill about days of fasting and thanksgiving was introduced in October, 1786 by James Madison (Jefferson was in France by that time) but never passed into law.

Along with three other bills, Barton points to this one as an indicator that Jefferson did not intend a wall of separation between church and state. And indeed, this bill does seem to be at odds with other legislation proposed by Jefferson, including the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was also one of the 126 bills.

How was it at odds? Read the full text of the bill about prayer days:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that the power of appointing days of public fasting and humiliation, or thanksgiving, throughout this commonwealth, may in the recess of the General Assembly, be exercised by the Governor, or Chief Magistrate, with the advice of the Council; and such appointment shall be notified to the public, by proclamation, in which occasion of the fasting or thanksgiving shall be particularly set forth. Every minister of the gospel shall on each day so to be appointed, attend and perform divine service and preach a sermon, or discourse, suited to the occasion, in his church, on pain of forfeiting fifty pounds for every failure, not having a reasonable excuse.

Jefferson proposed government enforced rules on when and how to preach? He may not have written this bill but he was on the committee that proposed it. This clearly is out of character for the man who wrote in his bill on religious freedom:

Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness…

Not only is the requirement to preach a sermon “suitable to the occasion” an imposition of the heavy hand of government, it is not one that would be favored by today’s religious right. Can you imagine the reaction to a bill requiring ministers to preach suitable sermons to a day of thanksgiving imposed by Barack Obama? Is this bill what David Barton wants? If so, the wall of separation would be breached with ministers having to preach or pay. In addition to getting the religious mixed in with the civil, this bill forced civil requirements into religious affairs.

The bill requiring ministers to preach was not Jefferson’s finish legislative hour.   The bill did not pass and Jefferson never publicly supported it or disclosed why he allowed it to be a part of the 126 bill revision. He did however, speak frequently about his work to establish religious freedom. Like most people of great accomplishment, Jefferson had his off moments. I submit that the bill requiring sermons was one of those proposals which should not be taken as representative of his views.

We go deeper into this bill as well as others in the 126 bill revision in Getting Jefferson Right, coming soon.