New York City Mayor Eric Adams‘ declaration that he’s not a believer in the “separation of church and state” has won him a new group of fans: Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians, whose leaders lauded the liberal Democrat.
“God bless Mayor Adams,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a congregation noted for its patriotic services around the Fourth of July. “I would say the mayor is exactly right.”
Mr. Jeffress said the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the federal government from establishing a “state religion,” has been misread by those who criticize speakers such as Mr. Adams, who declared Tuesday that he decides political issues “with a God-like approach to them.”
“Liberals have taken that establishment clause and perverted it into something our forefathers never intended,” the Texas pastor said. “I believe much of the chaos we’re seeing in our country today results from trying to be good without God, and such a thing is totally impossible.”
Asked about Mr. Adams’ assertion that “when we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” Mr. Jeffress called for a reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s 1980 Stone v. Graham decision, which struck down a law mandating a display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky public schools.
“It is, I think, somewhat ironic that in 1980 the Supreme Court took the Ten Commandments out of schools, and said it is unconstitutional to even post the words, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” Mr. Jeffress said. “Because if you post the Ten Commandments, children might actually read them and obey them. I think we’re suffering the consequences of that right now, as a country.”
Mr. Adams spoke Tuesday at an interfaith prayer breakfast held at the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan. He addressed an audience of 300 faith leaders from various religious backgrounds.
“New York City is a place where the mayor of New York is a servant of God,” he told the crowd.
Dov Hikind, a Democrat and Orthodox Jew who served 36 years in the New York State Assembly and knew Mr. Adams from the latter’s Brooklyn borough presidency, lauded the mayor, although they differ on many issues.
“I sort of like everything he’s said” about the separation question, Mr. Hikind said in an interview. “It’s very different from what’s ‘in’ among progressive Democrats and the Democratic Party in general, where [they] want to separate religion from the state and things like that.”
Mr. Hikind, who lives in Nassau County and was not eligible to vote in New York City when Mr. Adams ran for the top job, doubted that the mayor was trying to “establish” religion for the nation’s largest municipality.
“Nobody’s talking about sticking anything down anyone’s throat,” he said. “But the idea that there’s a God and, and that he plays a role in our life, on whatever level you want to agree to, I just thought it was very, very refreshing.”
Mr. Hikind said the mayor’s references to his Christian background and church attendance didn’t threaten him or his Orthodox Jewish constituents.
“Mayor Adams really shows a lot of courage by speaking his mind, telling us what he feels, and that this is what he believes in,” Mr. Hikind said. “I respect that tremendously.”
Arielle Del Turco, an official at the D.C.-based Family Research Council, a conservative evangelical advocacy group, also supported Mr. Adams’ call for prayer in schools.
“He’s not trying to establish a theocracy,” said Ms. Del Turco, assistant director of the council’s Center for Religious Liberty. “If we’re talking about his prayer comments, he simply knows the power of prayer, and thinks that removing a daily prayer from school hasn’t helped us. I think he’s right, and I think a lot of Americans would agree.”
She said the Establishment Clause does “not mean that the state must forcibly remove all signs of religion from schools or other public institutions. The mayor said that he can’t ignore his faith just because he’s an elected official. And he shouldn’t be told to check his faith at the door, just because he’s in office.”
Ms. Del Turco also said the 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Engle v. Vitale, which removed nonsectarian prayer from public schools, needs to be reconsidered and pointed to Mr. Adams’ statement as a tacit endorsement.
“America’s youth are really struggling, and I think the mayor sees that,” she said.
She cited a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study about depression in teenagers, with “something like 57% of girls reporting [they feel] persistent sadness.”
American teens are “adrift in their identity,” she said. “Putting your faith in God and believing in something bigger than yourself offers meaning in life. If young people are finding hope in Christ, I think the schools would see an impact, I think society would see an impact. So I think it’s time to rethink some of the effects of these policies.”
Another evangelical thinker, asked about Mr. Adams’ statement, said Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to Connecticut’s Danbury Baptist Association in which the “wall of separation” phrase was first used, has been misread.
Jerry Newcombe, executive director of the Providence Forum, said Jefferson didn’t resist a reference to faith in the letter.
“That letter ends with Jefferson saying, ‘I request that you pray to God, for me, and I’ll pray to God for you,’” Mr. Newcombe said. He said it would be “ludicrous” to say Mr. Adams was trying to anoint himself as bishop “of the Church of New York.”
“He is acknowledging God in that context,” Mr. Newcombe said.
For all the support Mr. Adams has received from conservative religious leaders, those who decried the mayor’s remarks remain unconvinced.
Rob Boston, who edits Church & State magazine at Americans United for Separation of Church & State, said Mr. Adams’ comments on prayer and separationism “promote Christian nationalist views.”
“It discourages me to hear the mayor of America’s largest city parrot them,” Mr. Boston said. “Our offer to the mayor would be to meet with us, and we’d be happy to explain to him how separation of church and state protects his right to believe and the right of every one of his constituents, and how we really can’t have a free nation without that principle.”
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said after the speech that the mayor cannot favor one religion over another.
“It is odd that Mayor Adams would need a refresher on the First Amendment,” she said. “After all, he has sworn to uphold the Constitution more than once, first as a police officer, later as a state representative, and then last year upon becoming mayor.”
But Tim Barton, president of Texas-based WallBuilders, said those views are “out of touch with the reality of the foundation of morality.”
Mr. Barton said laws determine what is legal, but “does not tell us what is moral or what is ethical,” and that Mr. Adams was merely saying “we need some kind of guiding force” to do this.
“If you go back to the guys who gave us the Constitution, who gave us the Bill of Rights, virtually every single one of them had prayer proclamations, either as governors or as presidents, where they called on either their state as the governor, or on the nation as a whole, to pray, and to ask God for His intervention in daily life or to pray and thank God,” Mr. Barton said.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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