The modern National Day of Prayer was enacted by President Truman and Congress in 1952 in the 36 U.S.C. § 119 : US Code – Section 119: National Day of Prayer and various Presidents at different times have called for days of fasting, prayer or thanksgiving. The heart of President Truman’s proclamation is contained in this section:
Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Friday, July 4, 1952, as a National Day of Prayer, on which all of us, in our churches, in our homes, and in our hearts, may beseech God to grant us wisdom to know the course which we should follow, and strength and patience to pursue that course steadfastly. May we also give thanks to Him for His constant watchfulness over us in every hour of national prosperity and national peril.
Ronald Reagan eloquently stated the purpose and significance of the National Day of Prayer in his 1983 proclamation which in part read:
It took the tragedy of the Civil War to restore a National Day of Prayer. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”
Revived as an annual observance by Congress in 1952, the National Day of Prayer has become a great unifying force for our citizens who come from all the great religions of the world. Prayer unites people. This common expression of reverence heals and brings us together as a Nation and we pray it may one day bring renewed respect for God to all the peoples of the world.
From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.
Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Thursday, May 5, 1983, National Day of Prayer. I call upon every citizen of this great Nation to gather together on that day in homes and places of worship to pray, each after his or her own manner, for unity of the hearts of all mankind.
President Reagan’s 1983 and subsequent proclamations stood firmly in the American tradition of Civil Religion and was decidedly non-sectarian. It acknowledged that our citizens “come from all the great religions of the world” and called on Americans to gather on the day “in homes and places of worship to pray, each after his or her own manner, for unity of the hearts of all mankind.” In fact the spirit of the declaration is much like that of the hymn God of Our Fathers which is recognized as our National Hymn. This hymn is not explicitly Christian and never mentions Christ or the Trinity yet it is widely sung in churches on days such as the Sunday nearest to Independence Day. The lyrics to that hymn are here:
God of our fathers, Whose almighty hand, Leads forth in beauty all the starry band Of shining worlds in splendor through the skies, Our grateful songs before Thy throne arise.
Thy love divine hath led us in the past, In this free land by Thee our lot is cast, Be Thou our Ruler, Guardian, Guide and Stay, Thy Word our law, Thy paths our chosen way.
From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence, Be Thy strong arm our ever sure defense; Thy true religion in our hearts increase, Thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.
Refresh Thy people on their toilsome way, Lead us from night to never ending day; Fill all our lives with love and grace divine, And glory, laud, and praise be ever Thine.
While the American religious tradition is highly Christian and even more so from the Reformed tradition this has always existed in tension with a decidedly secularist philosophy embodied by many of the Founding Fathers who were very careful to recognize the importance of religion but at the same time both sought to protect religious liberty by NOT enacting laws to establish a particular religion nor to entangle the government in the affairs of religion which could in their view be detrimental to true religious liberty.
In fact both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were very careful about proclamations and ensuring that government was not favoring any particular religious body. Jefferson wrote to Reverend Samuel Miller in 1808 that:
Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it. …civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”
Madison who was the author of the Bill of Rights and included religious liberty in the First Amendment in support of Virginia Baptists who were under pressure from those who were determined to make and keep the Episcopal Church as the state religion of the commonwealth. Madison wrote to Edward Livingston in 1822 that:
“There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive Proclamations of fasts & festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of injunction, or have lost sight of the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms. In this sense, I presume you reserve to the Govt. a right to appoint particular days for religious worship throughout the State, without any penal sanction enforcing the worship.”
President Obama’s 2012 Proclamation for the National Day of Prayer stands in line with the founders as well as that of Presidents Truman and Reagan. It calls Americans to join with him to
“On this National Day of Prayer, we give thanks for our democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience. Let us pray for all the citizens of our great Nation, particularly those who are sick, mourning, or without hope, and ask God for the sustenance to meet the challenges we face as a Nation. May we embrace the responsibility we have to each other, and rely on the better angels of our nature in service to one another. Let us be humble in our convictions, and courageous in our virtue. Let us pray for those who are suffering around the world, and let us be open to opportunities to ease that suffering.
Let us also pay tribute to the men and women of our Armed Forces who have answered our country’s call to serve with honor in the pursuit of peace. Our grateful Nation is humbled by the sacrifices made to protect and defend our security and freedom. Let us pray for the continued strength and safety of our service members and their families. While we pause to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending liberty, let us remember and lend our voices to the principles for which they fought — unity, human dignity, and the pursuit of justice.”
Even Republican Presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush were careful to attempt to keep this in tension only holding one official event each during their presidencies. It was not until George W. Bush that the President hosted events in every year of his presidency. Remember the language of the law was that the President shall issue a proclamation for the people of the nation to pray. Likewise the proclamations are a call for Americans, as Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman wrote to gather together on that day in homes and places of worship to pray, each after his or her own manner, for unity of the hearts of all mankind. The National Day of Prayer was not intended to entwine the government in exclusively religious observances by any particular religious tradition as many of the National Day of Prayer observances in many local, state and federal government agencies.
In 1982 a group of Evangelical Christians led by Shirley Dobson formed The National Day of Prayer Task Force. This organization is is not simply a Christian organization with an ecumenical purpose, but rather a decidedly Evangelic Christian organization. It was formed to coordinate and implement a fixed annual day of prayer, the purpose of which was to organize evangelical Christian prayer events with local, state, and federal government entities. Its ministry partners included the heavily politicized American Family Association, Alliance Defense Fund, American Center for Law and Justice, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family. The Leadership is a veritable “Whose Who” of political preachers and ultra-conservative politicians including Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. This organization has since grown in popularity and prominence often being the primary organizer of such events.
While I am not against the observance of the National Day of Prayer I am uncomfortable with an organization like the National Day of Prayer Committee, which is dominated not just by Evangelical Christians, but Evangelical Christian political activists sponsoring the vast majority of these observances. The group makes no pretense about not being ecumenical and being what they say is “Judeo-Christian.” However since it it has appropriated the name “The National Day of Prayer” as its moniker and has huge financial and political backing, many Christians and non-Christians alike assume that The National Day of Prayer Task Force is the official government sponsored and endorsed organizer for the event. The appearance is solidified by the fact that many of their events are held in government or military facilities. In my opinion the National Day of Prayer Task Force has hijacked the occasion to fulfill their political and religious agenda. As a Christian and member of a small Old Catholic denomination I find this frightening.
What I think has happened within the time of my military career is that many Evangelical groups have made the National Day of Prayer “their event” and use people within government agencies or the military to organize events which lean heavily toward Evangelical Christianity. I have seen it myself at many locations. Not only has this occurred but many times the leadership of these religious groups promote the political agenda of a particular political party or philosophy and as such that political philosophy sometimes becomes part of the event. It happens quite often and I actually think invites trouble and challenges that will eventually have a negative impact on all Christians.
In fact The National Day of prayer was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb who ruled in favor of a suit brought about by the Freedom from Religion Foundation against The National Day of Prayer Task Force, former President George Bush and others. The suit was expanded to name President Barack Obama when he requested that Judge Crabb to dismiss the case in 2009 when the administration argued that the foundation had no legal standing to sue. The President Obama and his administration appealed the ruling and went ahead with the proclamation and observance of the National Day of Prayer in 2010 and 2011. The Obama Administration’s appeal was successful and a Federal Appeals Court overturned Judge Crabb’s ruling in 2011. The reason the appeal was granted was because the Appeals Court ruled that the Freedom from Religion Foundation had no legal standing because it did suffer actual harm from the Presidential proclamation and call to prayer.
My contention is that when a very religiously exclusive and politically partisan group virtually takes over what was implicitly non-sectarian and non-partisan that the event becomes more of a sectarian event than national event. The National Day of Prayer Task Force seems to merge Evangelical Christianity with the Federal Government. Somehow I don’t think that Jefferson, Madison or early Baptist leaders like Roger Williams and John Leland who all saw the separation of Church and State as essential to the preservation of the civil rights of all citizens, not just Christians.
I believe in and do pray for the United States of America, our people and our leaders. I even think that a designated day of prayer for the nation is a salient reminder of the necessity of citizens of faith to pray for this country and our leaders regardless of their faith, absence of faith or political party or ideology. It is what makes the American experiment in Religious Liberty so unique in the world and why we should resist all attempts to return to the hopelessly entwined and bankrupt systems embodied by the State Religions of Europe and the Middle East.