The Separation of Church and State

I was on twitter the other week and saw a tweet by the Huffington Post about how the Dali Lama “leads the Senate in its opening prayer.” I was amazed, as I had no idea that the Senate opened its sessions with a prayer. My first thought was, how does this work under the idea of the separation of church and state? So I did a little research and this is what I found on the website of the Office of the Chaplain:
Throughout the years, the United States Senate has honored the historic separation of Church and State, but not the separation of God and State. The first Senate, meeting in New York City on April 25, 1789, elected the Right Reverend Samuel Provost, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, as its first Chaplain. During the past two hundred and seven years, all sessions of the Senate have been opened with prayer, strongly affirming the Senate’s faith in God as Sovereign Lord of our Nation. The role of the Chaplain as spiritual advisor and counselor has expanded over the years from a part-time position to a full-time job as one of the Officers of the Senate.  The Office of the Chaplain is nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian.

There are three parts of this description that particularly stick out to me. The first is the distinction that is made between the “separation of Church and State” and the “separation of God and state.” I am at a loss to see the difference between the two given that the whole purpose of the separation of church and state is to keep religious views from effecting government decisions.

The second is the reference to “the Senate’s faith in God as Sovereign Lord of our Nation.” First, this statement is effectively saying that ALL members of the senate have “faith” in God, which is not necessarily true. Second, the last time I checked the United States of America does not have a “Sovereign Lord.”

Finally, at the end of this description there is the disclaimer that the Office of the Chaplain is not specific to a particular type of religion. However, what about atheists? The inclusion of a prayer to God goes against the belief of atheists. Go a step further, praying to God excludes those who for instance believe in multiple gods, or for that matter any other religious entity that is not “God” with a capital “G.”

Now I understand that opening the Senate with a prayer has become a tradition, and that tradition can be important. However, the meaning behind a tradition cannot possibly stay the same as time progresses because it changes meaning as the world in which we live changes. It’s been over 200 years, isn’t it about time this tradition gets updated?