A President's Prayer
The Friends of the National World War II Memorial recently announced the charity had received a $2-million grant that will allow inclusion of President Franklin Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer on the memorial site. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed legislation authorizing the prayer to be added to the memorial. However, as the charity’s website explains, “The legislation stipulated that no federal funds could be used to implement this directive.”
Three cheers to the Friends of the National World War II Memorial—and the foundations that support it—for raising the funds needed to include this piece of American history in the memorial. It’s yet another example of America’s charitable sector in action. As Alexis de Tocqueville marveled in Democracy in America, Americans “constantly form associations… religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive… associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes.”
Almost 200 years later, Americans and their associations, foundations, charities, societies, and clubs continue to find a way—often in spite of the roadblocks created by government.
According to the Washington Post, FDR’s entire prayer will “be etched on a large bronze plaque supported by two granite pillars in an area called the Circle of Remembrance at the edge of the memorial.” Holly Rotondi, executive director of the Friends of the National World War II Memorial, adds, “We will not change anything. It’s a historic document.”
Indeed it is—and a fundamental one at that.
As the Normandy beaches turned red with blood on June 6, 1944, America’s president unequivocally requested that the American people pray with him. “In this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer,” he said, as civilization hung in the balance.
This wasn’t the sort of vague, throwaway reference to “thoughts and prayers” that has become a cliched punchline in so much of today’s political rhetoric. FDR meant what he was saying. He was literally asking the American people to pray with him—for wisdom, for endurance, for comfort and reassurance, for “the saving of our country,” for help in somehow rescuing what humanity had neglected and abandoned, for victory over “the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies.”
The stakes, the risks, the dangers were as high as the heavens. “Almighty God,” he intoned, “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. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard.”
FDR knew how awful that road would be, and he offered the American people the tiniest, most bearable glimpse of the hell their sons would face: “The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.”
He knew that “some will never return.” Indeed, the US invasion force lost 2,500 dead in those first 24 hours. And so, FDR prayed, “Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.” He asked all Americans—“because the road is long” and “the enemy is strong”—to “devote themselves in a continuance of prayer.” That’s worth emphasizing. FDR wasn’t suggesting a day of reflection or remembrance. He asked his countrymen for continual intercessory prayer. “As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips,” he said. And like the desperate dad in Mark’s Gospel, who uttered the most quintessentially human prayer in all of scripture—“Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief”—America’s president asked God to “give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade.”
FDR’s D-Day prayer is as much a part of the history of America’s involvement in World War II as Bataan, the Bulge, the Bomb, the “day of infamy,” the Doolittle Raid, and D-Day itself. As such, it should have been included in the World War II Memorial from the very outset. It wasn’t—and it wasn’t funded with federal monies—because of some phantom reference found nowhere in the Constitution to a “wall” separating church and state. And so, well-meaning lawmakers were forced to go through contortions—and charities were forced to scramble for funds—to add the words of a wartime president to a war memorial.
Imagine if FDR, Lincoln, or other wartime presidents had applied the same standard when they delivered speeches or issued declarations beseeching the Almighty for assistance, endurance, and guidance.
Perhaps FDR would have used some of his family’s personal wealth to underwrite the costs of his radio broadcast. Or perhaps the American Legion or some other public-minded charitable organization would have been enlisted to make sure his prayer was heard by the American people in a way that didn’t disturb that “wall of separation.”
Perhaps Lincoln would have asked a political patron to fund the printing and dissemination of his Gettysburg Address, which featured that offending phrase, “this nation, under God.” Perhaps he would have delivered his first inaugural far away from federal property. Recall that it mentions the “eternal truth and justice” of the “Almighty Ruler of nations.” Or perhaps he would have rented space outside the White House to draft his second inaugural, which was infused with references to God. As the late Richard John Neuhaus observed, “Lincoln’s second inaugural address, with its profound reflection on the mysteries of providence, is in some ways worthy of St. Augustine.”
These examples sound outrageous, but they’re not terribly different from what lawmakers required of the World War II Memorial.
Many modern ears may not like hearing it, but America’s founders erected bulwarks to safeguard religion from government—not the other way around. Article VI of the Constitution makes clear that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” So, America’s government cannot demand that a person confess—or renounce—a certain faith in order to serve in government. The First Amendment declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So, America’s government is prohibited from creating or banning a religion.
In short, the Constitution says nothing about a “wall of separation” preventing people of faith from influencing their government—and nothing that would bar the desperate prayer of a wartime president from being included on a public memorial. That “wall of separation” phrase—it bears repeating—is lifted out of a letter from President Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, which wrote the new president with concerns that “what religious privileges we enjoy… we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”
In response, Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” He signed off by reciprocating “your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”
Of the many things we can glean from this episode, two of the most important are that Jefferson sided with the religious group, and he closed his letter with a prayer.
Jefferson may have been a deist, but it pays to recall that his masterpiece announcing America’s birth invokes “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and declares all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Jefferson was following another founder’s lead. In 1775, as Congress convened, Benjamin Franklin urged that “henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate.”
Later, when he and America were older, Franklin added, “The longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men.”
If his D-Day prayer is any indication, FDR agreed.
Indeed, all across American history, we hear prayers and see expressions of faith from America’s leaders, especially during those times when, as Franklin put it, we are “sensible of danger.”
Before America’s entry into World War II, FDR joined Winston Churchill and a choir of sailors in signing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and “Eternal Father Strong to Save”—three especially apt prayers set to music.
At the height of the Cold War, as he signed legislation adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, President Dwight Eisenhower declared, “We are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” During that same “long twilight struggle,” President John Kennedy rallied his countrymen “to call upon our great reservoir of spiritual resources” and “turn back at this time to the oldest source of wisdom and strength, to the words of the prophets and the saints.”
When 9/11 awoke America to a new kind of war, President George W. Bush climbed the lectern of the National Cathedral to reassure Americans, “The Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.”
Like a midnight flash of lightning, January 6 revealed that we live in yet another time of danger. And so, Vice President Mike Pence quoted from Proverbs to remind a nation brought low that God is sovereign: “There is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to heal… a time to build up.” Standing at the House Dais, Speaker Nancy Pelosi prayed the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me a channel of Thy peace. Where there is darkness, let me bring light. Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is despair, let me bring hope.”
President Joe Biden offered hope by taking the oath of his office at the very spot where a lawless mob 14 days earlier had launched a violent insurrection against the Constitution and the constitutional order. He then invoked St. Augustine, quoted from Psalm 30 and asked his countrymen to join him in prayer. A moment later, the words of “Amazing Grace” flowed over the Capitol.
Why do America’s leaders engage in such rituals and say such things? On a personal level, many of them believe in God and the power of prayer. And on a political level, all of them recognize that the vast majority of the American people believe in God. In fact, 87 percent of Americans believe in God. That’s remarkable for a country as diverse as ours. Yet given the central role faith has played in America’s development, this shouldn’t be surprising. Any country where presidents lead prayer breakfasts, where legislative business opens with a chaplain’s prayer, where the highest court convenes with the refrain, “God save the United States and this honorable court”—any country that has a National Cathedral—is neither agnostic nor godless.
It’s not a particular faith that unites Americans so much as a respect for faith. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways—or at all—to recognize this truth. This respect for faith supports our free society. It’s a stirring yet humbling reminder that there’s something more powerful than the individual or the government—or, as FDR understood, the enemy.