Saturday, November 9, 2013

Daily Devotionals to President Obama: Religious Establishment?

On October 22, 2013, Joshua Dubois’s book, The President’s Devotional, was published and made available to the public.  Dubois is a Pentecostal preacher and the former head of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Executive Office of the President of the United States.  The book is a compilation of 365 of the thousand daily devotionals that Dubois emailed to President Obama each morning during his first term and into his second.  Each devotional includes a Bible passage, a short prayer, and, often, a reference to relevant and difficult national issues.  The goal of the emails was to help the President cultivate his Christian faith and maintain a close spiritual relationship with God.  President Obama called the reflections meaningful, and those around him said the emails grounded and motivated him.

The Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships was established by the Bush administration in 2001 to “[form] partnerships between government and non-profit organizations, both secular and faith-based, to more effectively serve Americans in need.”  Since its inception, the Office has received some criticism from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union who argue that the Office uses government funds to support religion.  The White House, however, ensures that the Office strengthens the capacities of faith-based and community organizations to provide social services in ways that are consistent with Constitutional guarantees.  The Obama Administration established an Advisory Council for the office made up of religious and secular leaders from various faiths and backgrounds and has been working to expand the office’s responsibilities.

The specific daily devotional practice has caused controversy because it was not part of Dubois’ job description. Critics have argued that there were more pressing duties and issues for Dubois and his office to be addressing.  The daily religious reflections have also been criticized because the specifically Christian prayers and lessons were composed and sent to the President using government time and money.  Dubois argued that although he spent an average of an hour to an hour and a half every day writing the emails, he usually did so on personal time and often from his personal email rather than his White House account.  Dubois, in addition to writing these daily devotionals, also strongly advocated for Rick Warren to give the invocation at President Obama’s first inauguration.

Under the First Amendment, Congress is prohibited from passing a law that establishes religion.  Despite this seemingly straightforward constitutional command, Establishment Clause jurisprudence has varied greatly throughout the Court’s history.  In Epperson v. Arkansas, the Court ruled that the government must be neutral and non-preferential with respect to religion, and must not be hostile to or promote any religion or non-religion.  The Lemon Test, which originated in the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision of 1971, controlled Establishment Clause jurisprudence for many years.  In Wallace v. Jaffree, some members of the Court began to push back against the use of the Lemon Test and take a more accommodationist perspective, arguing that government action can have religious purposes rather than just secular ones.  The Court has also used Justice Kennedy’s coercion test and Justice O’Connor’s endorsement test to determine constitutionality in religious establishment cases.

In Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, the Court simply mentioned that school districts allowing religious groups to use their facilities after hours passes the Lemon Test without going into detail about the prongs of the Test.  Justice Scalia, in his concurrence, related the Test to a “ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried.”  Scalia found fault with the Court’s continued use of what he saw as an unconstitutional test, and argued that Justices only invoke the Test when they want to strike down certain practices that violate it.  In one of the most recent establishment cases, Mitchell v. Helms, the Lemon Test was used, but the effect and entanglement prongs were combined.  Recent cases have also brought up conflicts between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.  The issue at stake here is whether government composition of prayers and Bible lessons for the President establishes the Christian religion in America.


It is important to note that no President thus far in American history has been an atheist or a follower of a non-Christian religion.  Religious beliefs of presidential candidates can greatly influence their electability, and can affect how they lead if elected to the position.  President Obama is a Christian who came to religion in adult life after not being raised in a religious household.  I do not think that Dubois was writing the President’s devotionals with the intention of promoting or establishing one religion in the U.S.  President Obama is a Christian and Dubois wrote the prayers with the goal of helping the President express his faith and ensure its importance in his busy life.  Based on more recent Establishment Clause jurisprudence, with movement away from the Lemon Test, I do not think the daily devotionals are an establishment of religion.  They may not have a specific secular purpose, but I agree with some members of the Court who have argued that religious purposes can be permitted so hostility to religion does not occur.

I think the argument could also be made that the government is being neutral towards religion in this case.  Dubois wrote specifically Christian prayers and lessons because the President is a Christian, not to promote Christianity over other religions.  It just so happens that this is the religion of the current President and all those who have come before him.  While I think the country would benefit from leaders with more religious diversity, this is the reality in the U.S.  And while I agree with critics that Dubois should not have written the prayers with government time and money because that was not one of his duties, the White House and Dubois, in this case, were expressing the importance of religion in the lives of Americans, not establishing religion in America.

What do you think?  Are you comfortable with the daily devotionals?  Do they constitute an establishment of religion?

4 comments:

Sayeh B said...

I think I agree with Jennie that the daily devotionals are okay. The most persuasive argument/logic for me is that these emails are catered specifically to the president, and President Obama just so happens to be Christian. Dubois is not trying to coerce him into believing or one religion or another, he is simply catering to what the president already believes in. It would be a different situation if President Obama made these emails public and advertised to the people of America that if they don't believe in the same things as him, they should leave (or something drastic that explicitly endorses the religion). I agree that Dubois shouldn't use government time/money/equipment to write these emails, but I think the concept does not establish religion in any way.

Tyler J said...

I too think the daily devotionals are okay. I understand and respect the President's wish to keep connected with his faith, and because the devotionals were meant for him, not the public, they are not being used in a coercive or negative means. One problem I do have, as Sayeh points out, is Dubois using government time and money to send the emails. He says he often uses personal time to write them, and I believe he should solely use his own time and means if he continues to write them. While there is nothing restricting him from publishing them in a book, I think that was a rather distasteful move.
On a different note, I don't particularly like this Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Maggie S. said...

I think because Obama came into office as a Christian and as someone for whom faith is important, the daily devotionals are fine. Obama is not sharing them each morning with the public or forcing his beliefs on anyone else. He may be the President, but he is still a person, and is entitled to the same free exercise as anyone else.

Maddie C. said...

I agree with Jennie that the daily devotionals are not an establishment of religion. Even though they are clearly Christian, they are meant only for President Obama's benefit. I agree with Maggie that this is not a case of establishment, but just a case of President Obama exercising his right to practice his religion. The devotionals are not sent to anyone else to endorse the specific beliefs and therefore, I think they are constitutional.