Politics is still relatively new to me, but politics is not new for ministers. Obviously church politics is its own special variety of politics, but for more than two centuries, ministers have also served in Congress, including the very first Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1789.
Before I sensed a call to a new ministry in our nation’s Capitol, I spent 22 years in church ministry, including the last 15 years as director of Student Ministry at the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and director of the Falls Creek Youth Camp.
One of the many issues that drew me to politics was the need to defend religious freedom in America. For whatever reason, America has become afraid of religious liberty and our culture doesn’t appreciate our nation’s deep foundation of the right to live your faith freely. On July 30, 1956, President Eisenhower signed legislation officially making “In God We Trust” our national motto. A few weeks ago, we recognized its 60th anniversary.
Prior to the passage of the law, there was no official motto for the United States. Congress noted that “In God We Trust” had already been inscribed on coins and was part of the national anthem, which showed that it had a strong claim as our national motto. However, the official designation would be “of great spiritual and psychological value to our country,” according to the Senate and House of Representatives at the time.
Even though the motto was not officially adopted until 1956, it is interwoven into the fabric of this nation, from our founding documents, to our currency, to inscriptions on our government buildings. Despite the prevalence of this motto throughout our society, it is still challenged by some as being controversial and an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. So the question is, can our nation recognize the importance of faith without endorsing a particular religion? The Declaration of Independence famously states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Fifteen years later, the religion clauses took shape, proclaiming that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Taken collectively, our Founders recognized a Creator on one hand, while still protecting religious freedom – the freedom to believe or not – as the first freedom codified in our Constitution. In doing so, there was both a recognition of faith without showing favoritism toward one religion over another, or even religion over non-religion.
The Establishment Clause does not prohibit the government from referencing religion altogether, nor does it require that the government scrub all references of religion from the public square. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once wrote in 1984, “government acknowledgments of religion serve, in the only ways reasonably possible in our culture, the legitimate secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society. For that reason, and because of their history and ubiquity, those practices are not understood as conveying government approval of particular religious beliefs.”
I serve as co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus in the United States Congress. The Caucus was founded by Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes in 2005 to protect the fundamental human right of religious freedom and guard the right of individuals to pray and practice their faith freely.
The separation of church and state ensures that neither entity can control the other. But America’s birth is rooted in the free exercise of religion without government coercion, and we must protect this fundamental right at all cost. I am glad that this is a part of our nation’s history that cannot be erased, and I will do whatever necessary to defend that right.
Reach James Lankford, Oklahoma’s junior U.S. Senator, at www.lankford.senate.gov.