Thoughts on the National Day of Prayer Controversy

Today like many institutions in the Federal Government our Medical Center observed the National Day of Prayer. Ours was a very low key affair which I led where we simply invited people to pray after reading the Presidential Proclamation for 2010 and a short opening prayer.  People were invited to pray silently and for the benefit of our Nation and its people, especially for those serving in the military and their families.  Likewise tom offer prayer for the victims of war, natural disasters and accidents in this county and around the world.

The National Day of prayer was recently 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 which 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 and administration appealed the ruling and went ahead with the proclamation and observance of the National Day of Prayer.

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.

In 1982 a group of Evangelical Christians led by Shirley Dobson formed The National Prayer Committee. This organization was exclusively Christian and 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.  This organization has since grown in popularity and prominence often being the primary organizer of such events.

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.”

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 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.

I have in my military career been ordered to attend such events.  I have no problem with praying or even gathering for prayer but there was pressure to attend and often the observances were quite exclusivist and dominated by Evangelicals aligned with the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

While I cannot agree with Judge Crabb who I think applies the law to the manner in how some groups brazenly enmesh their particular faith tradition into these observances.  However I think that she misses that actual intent of the law and proclamations which are both non-sectarian and voluntary focusing on people observing this in their homes and places of worship.  To make the blanket judgement that the law itself is unconstitutional as Judge Crabb did is a brazen overreach.  She may rule that observances which are sectarian but done or sponsored by government agencies where employees feel pressured to attend are unconstitutional is another matter. When any religious group uses their position to organize and promote their particular view in a setting where military members or other government employees are “encouraged” to attend and where the senior leadership of these agencies is present there is the presumption that attendance is mandatory even if it is not explicitly stated.  In such cases military personnel or government employees could feel that promotion or fair treatment could be negatively impacted by not participating in what some could arguably call an establishment of religion.  Such could be the case with any faith and not just the Christian faith. This was something that the Founding Fathers despite the overwhelming Christian make up of the country strove to avoid.  They recognized the importance that religion played in public and private life and many were not afraid to use explicitly Christian in referring God but did not want the Christian faith, any denomination of it or any other religion to be either the master of or the servant of the state as was the case in all of Europe at the time of the founding of this country.

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 withing government agencies or the military to organize events which lean heavily toward Evangelical Christianity.  I have seen it myself especially when I was in the Army. 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.  When it does happen a perilous boundary is crossed and the group or groups that do this invite opposition including legal challenges such as happened in Wisconsin because such proceedings give the appearance of the establishment of religion.

To be fair to Evangelicals and others it also appears to me that some strident atheist groups are bent on removing religion from the public square and quite often use the courts and legislatures to push their agenda.  I think that the founders did not intend for this to be the case either.  The secret to the American political and religious tradition is that for the most part we have maintained the tension needed to ensure that religious liberties are protected without establishing a state religion.  This is something that people throughout the world have admired about this country as opposed to Europe where state churches worked hand in hand with their governments to persecute religious minorities even engaging in progroms or religiously based mass murder.  The same is true in much of the rest of the world where leaders of other faiths act as agents of their government and persecute those who are not of their faith.

Our society now is extremely polarized and there is little middle ground or moderation in regard to religion, politics or civil behavior.  Instead rhetoric is heated. Liberals often mock conservative Christians or others who hold their faith deeply and believe their faith to have a public voice. Likewise some political and religious people that would trample the in response to the increased secularism of modern times want to restore some sort of balance even if it means overriding the long standing tradition in American life, that tradition of tolerance and protection of the rights of others, even those that that are different or even unusual.  Such behavior on both sides becomes more heated and less compromising.  The opposing parties mirror each others attitudes, actions and tactics and use the media to stir up people to support their side and use the courts and legislatures to promote their agendas which they all believe are more in keeping with the founders intent than the other side.

This is why there is such a controversy in an event that was intended to be a unifying activity, an event that was to help Americans of all religious traditions to work for the common good of all Americans and not just their party and I use the term in a non-political sense.  My hope is that Americans in all places will have the freedom to gather to observe the National Day of Prayer but in the sense that it was originally intended, a religious observance in a civil context which promotes the public good and recognizes the influence of God and religion in the life of the country.

I know that my views will not make zealots of both sides of many faiths and creeds happy.  It seems that moderation and civility is out and those who actually believe in tolerance, respect and civility are marginalized by extremists of many forms.  Since in the past few months I have been called various names including “Communist, Marxist, Liberal, non-Christian and unbeliever” I expect that once again I will collect some fan mail.  I’m okay with that so long as you don’t call me a Dodger fan.


Padre Steve+


Filed under faith, philosophy, Religion

2 responses to “Thoughts on the National Day of Prayer Controversy

  1. Believe it or not Steve – I do very much agree with your assessment of the situation. I was blessed with the responsibility to coordinate events for the past 20 years and the 3 years here in Arizona have been like pulling teeth to get a variety of people to cooperate. We had over 300 at 4 events within 22 hours. We honored veterans and frist responders and had the Chaplain of the AZ dept. of Safety as our speaker. The others were in a church, park and Christian School. I will say that it wasn’t exclusively Evangelical but about 85% in participaation from the leadership and attendance. I have ried to get some others on board – but those who don’t even give it a look see it as the way you see it now – so my question to you is – even though I understand it to be what you have described – how do I get others to particiapte who think it is only one thing? Blessings to you AWLAYS brother. I have never called you a bad name!! :>)

    • padresteve

      My friend I wish i knew how to bring others into the mix. Some of the places I have been I have seen some from other faiths who showed up but were pretty much marginalized or ignored by the bulk of those present. I think 20, 30 or 40 years ago things were less polarized than they are now and people even if the disagreed could still be civil to one another. Honestly I don’t know what the answer is, maybe more prayer?

      Anyway, of course you have never called me a name, but recently I have been called some interesting names. Instead of getting upset now I try to use humor to defuze such acts.



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