John Adams

John Adams asked the nation to repent for "manifold sins and transgressions." (March 29, 2014)

Despite a federal judge's order that the Carroll County commissioners stop praying to Jesus at their meetings, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier reached into history and summoned George Washington to aid her cause last week.

"I beseech thee, for the sake of him in whom thou art well pleased, the Lord Jesus Christ, to admit me to render thee deserved thanks and praises for thy manifold mercies extended toward me," Frazier intoned, saying the words were once offered to God by Washington.

But experts say that there is no evidence that Washington wrote the prayer Frazier read — or even that he had particularly strong religious convictions.

Thomas S. Kidd, a historian at Baylor University, said that there are plenty of examples of officials in the early United States explicitly blending politics and Christianity which Frazier could have drawn on.

Take, for example, a proclamation issued by Washington's successor, John Adams, in 1798 calling for a day of "humiliation, fasting, and prayer." He recommended that citizens of the young republic look to "God," "the Redeemer of the World," and the "Holy Spirit" and repent for their "manifold sins and transgressions."

Even in the early days of the United States, though, the connection of religion and politics was controversial. For example, Thomas Jefferson ended the practice of calling for fast days, Kidd said, and later presidents struggled with the issue.

"[James] Madison, for instance, resumed the tradition of having days of prayer and fasting," Kidd added, "but later on he said he regretted doing it."

The Carroll County board is locked in a dispute with residents who say they feel excluded by the prayers offered at the beginning of meetings, and Frazier said she wanted to show how her actions were in line with those of the Founding Fathers.

Praying at legislative meetings has a long history, but in recent years courts have ruled — as the judge did in the Carroll County case — that officials should stick with general references to God, and not invoke deities aligned with one sect or another.

—Ian Duncan