This semester, I’m teaching a course called “Christian Ethics in Engagement with U.S. Culture”; sometimes the syllabus and the daily news mirror each other in uncanny ways.

This past week, for instance, I had been talking with my students about how the nation’s founders—spurred-on by religious leaders like Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland—nurtured the crucial development of a profound respect for religious liberty, including an imperfectly practiced, but indispensably protective, “separation of church and state.”

Then, on Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump said: “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that.”

The Johnson Amendment (offered by then Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954) regulates the ways in which not-for-profit, tax exempt religious organizations may involve themselves in politics. While clergy may speak on social, moral, and ethical issues which involve political leaders and their behavior, clergy may not, while acting in their official roles, endorse political candidates. Churches may register and educate voters but not give money to candidates’ electoral campaigns.

Enforcement of the Johnson Amendment essentially falls to the Internal Revenue Service which rarely investigates, and even more rarely takes action against, religious leaders and groups which allegedly violate it.

Mr. Trump’s remarks about the Johnson Amendment were part of a speech in which he also suggested that the breakfast-crowd should pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor-governor who has taken Trump’s seat on Celebrity Apprentice, since Schwarzenegger’s ratings lag behind those Trump enjoyed.

The president used an ostensible “prayer request” to make a joke, to settle a score, and to celebrate himself.  By so doing, he showed poor taste, trivialized prayer, and squandered an opportunity to speak of reconciliation.  

Mr. Trump isn’t alone in “using” prayer as a means to his own ends. I remember that, when I was a little boy, my dad would stand up in church and ask for prayer because “my mother in law is flying into town on her broom this week.” I’ve heard folks ask for prayer for “the ‘Smiths’ who are having a hard time with their daughter,” and the purpose of the request was to spread a bit of juicy gossip. And, there might be more than a handful of Falcons’ or Patriots’ fans praying for a Super Bowl victory. 

Even though prayer is about humble communion with God and about growing in conformity to God’s loving, just, and merciful purposes, I know, from my own failures, that the temptation to treat prayer like a tool for building our own projects is hard to resist.

Mr. Trump also isn’t alone in misunderstanding how vital it is to maintain a “wall of separation” between the institutions of religion and the institutions of government (Interesting, isn’t it?, which walls he wants to build and which ones he wants to demolish).

There are important debates to have about, among other things, tax-exemption for, and the civic responsibilities of, religious institutions and about how to balance “no establishment” and “free exercise” of religion in public schools, the military, and religiously-motivated initiatives to care for the marginalized and ill.

Whatever the contours of those debates, however, we must be vigilant about protecting both religion and government from using—manipulating—each other and about preserving freedom of, for, and from religion. There’s a parallel, I think, between the willingness to “use” prayer and to “use” religion for questionable purposes.

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote these well-known words to the Danbury (CT) Baptist Association, responding to their plea for him to stand firm in honoring the First Amendment:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & State.

That’s the right wall–the one to preserve.