National Day of Prayer

NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER…. As “holidays” go, the official National Day of Prayer is difficult to understand. For the faithful, every day is a day of prayer. For a secular government that separates church from state, the idea of a state-sanctioned day in which the public is encouraged to pray is rather odd.

In the early 1950s, when lawmakers were adding “under God” to the Pledge and changing all American money to include the phrase “In God We Trust,” Congress created an official annual Prayer Day for the nation. Congress, under pressure from the religious right, changed the law in 1988 to set the National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May, which brings us to today.

The good news is, President Obama is choosing to honor the official National Day of Prayer in a very different way than his predecessor.

The National Day of Prayer White House event is history — for now.

The White House has announced that President Obama will sign a proclamation on the National Day of Prayer, to be held on Thursday, but will not hold any sort of event. This marks a return to the practice of presidents before George W. Bush, who hosted religious leaders for a ceremony in honor of the day.

Conservative Christian leaders who popularized the event are regarding it at a snub, calling it a “boycott.” … During the Bush administration, the first Thursday in May — the National Day of Prayer, as mandated by Congress — included a ceremony in the White House East Room with prominent evangelicals. It was headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

There’s no White House ceremony this year.

Good. If Americans want to pray today, they will. If not, that’s fine, too. There’s no need for the White House to host a special event, organized by evangelical activists, promoting an exclusive and unnecessary “holiday” encouraging worship.

My friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted that Obama is doing the right thing. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn said, “I am pleased that President Obama has made this decision. The president is required by federal law to declare a National Day of Prayer, but there is no requirement that a special event be held at the White House in observance of this event. During the Bush years, the Dobsons and other Religious Right leaders were given special access to the White House. That seems to have come to an end, and I’m glad.”

So am I.

Post Script: One prominent religious right activist, Concerned Women for America’s Wendy Wright, said, “President Obama may have problems believing in the Christian faith, he should at least honor the traditions and foundation of our country.”

First, the president doesn’t have a problem “believing in the Christian faith,” and these ridiculous attacks only make the religious right appear sleazy. Second, if we’re going to honor “the traditions and foundation of our country,” I’d remind the religious right that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison specifically opposed government-endorsed prayer days.