Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The National Day of Prayer – A Day of Political Posturing

Tomorrow (May 6) is officially the National Day of Prayer, even though a federal court ruled last month that official government sponsorship was unconstitutional, immediately suspending its ruling long enough for the Obama administration to appeal. Today's Boston Globe published its lead editorial unqualifiedly endorsing in syrupy prose the National Day of Prayer, taking a “what's the big deal” attitude over the federal court decision. Quoting directly: “From time to time, public officials try to enforce their religious beliefs on others, but the National Day of Prayer hardly qualifies as such an effort.”  Hold on, Mr. Editor, but that is exactly what the organizers of that government-sponsored day of prayer have on their agenda.

The editorial writer did not do his homework and apparently is ignorant of the background of the lawsuit that led the federal court to declare the National Day of Prayer to be unconstitutional. It is not about whether or not a day of prayer, reflection or meditation violates the separation of church and state. It is much more troubling than that. It is about whether this day of prayer, and the organization behind it, are violating the “establishment” clause of the Constitution by promoting a particular religion, Evangelical Protestant Christianity.

So a little history. The National Day of Prayer is an evangelical Christian program, funded by a task force led by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, the founder of the conservative political activist organization, Focus on the Family.

According to its website, the task force is “a privately funded organization whose purpose is to encourage participation on the National Day of Prayer” and “to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer... and to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families.”

Its origin is traced to a 1952 rally in Washington by the evangelical minister Rev. Billy Graham, in which he called for a national day of prayer and envisioned a "great spiritual awakening" for the capital with "thousands coming to Jesus Christ." The initial bill proposing the National Day of Prayer was introduced in the Senate (1952) by Senator Absalom Robertson (father of Pat Robertson) as a measure against the "corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based."

Apparently it was not implemented, so it was reintroduced in the Senate in 1987 by Strom Thurmond, according to the time line on the National Day of Prayer's website. The driving force behind the day of prayer was a little known group, the National Prayer Committee, a creation of the International Congress on World Evangelization, held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974.

In short, this is a project of a right wing Christian group to promote their particular take on Christianity and to try to get control of the conversation about religion in American life, including proseletyzing for evangelical Christianity and promoting their view that the United States is a Christian nation—which it is not, and has not been since its founding. See my recent article on the issue.

The federal court found that the day of prayer served no secular public purpose and that is why it was ruled to be unconstitutional. The judge said in her opinion that “the U.S. government may not enact a statute supporting prayer any more than it can encourage citizens to 'fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.'"

If it were a neutral day for all people, whether or not religious, for reflection and meditation on our common values, maybe it could be found to be lawful, but as it is now structured, it is a project of a narrow Christian evangelical group with a clear sectarian purpose. Americans are certainly free to pray or not as they choose, but there is no justification for a public government sponsored day of sectarian religious prayer.

Prayer is not necessarily objectionable if not done in public or with public sponsorship but it is probably pointless except as a prelude to action that involves a serious commitment to real Christian (and human) values--working toward peace in Afghanistan and the Middle East [being peacemakers, bring our troops home], feeding the hungry [support the food bank and food kitchens], sheltering the homeless [supporting the homeless shelter, the abused women's shelter, the children's home], healing the sick [funding CHIP, supporting health care for all], etc. Prayer by itself without action is empty and meaningless words. If our world is to become a better place the people of our nation will have to work together with others around the world to make it happen. A national day of sectarian prayer will not accomplish that.

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