Let’s Get Prayer Out of the Churches and Back in the Schools and Public Meetings Where It Belongs!

You might think that by stint of being a Christian believer and a Political Animal I’d be all charged up about this being the National Day of Prayer. Here’s why I’m not, as eloquently expressed by Sarah Posner at the Guardian:

Thursday is the National Day of Prayer, the annual spectacle of activists and elected officials, in Washington and around the country, gathering for unabashedly conservative Christian public worship. This year’s theme: “Pray for America”, because there is a need, organizers say, “for individuals, corporately and individually, to place their faith in the unfailing character of their Creator, who is sovereign over all governments, authorities, and men”.

Although the US Congress designated the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer, these organized prayer activities are staged by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a Christian, rightwing organization. Despite its lofty claims, the NDPTF represents neither all Americans nor all Christians. As just one example of its extreme positions, the group promotes a strain of Christianity that teaches marriage equality is satanic, as pro-LGBT groups have pointed out.

Now as it happens, I have an additional motive for disliking events like this: Religious belief has suffered enormously from state involvement over the millennia. You can make the argument (many have) that the worst thing that happened to the early Christian Church was its adoption by Constantine as a state religion (simply refusing to persecute Christians, or anyone else, would have been a far greater gift). And one of the greatest things about this country is that it allowed believers (and in theory, at least, unbelievers) to breathe freely, without the dubious support and the incessant interference of government (all of the obnoxious revisionist history coming from the likes of David Barton can’t make it otherwise!).

It’s deeply ironic that the faction of American Christians, conservative evangelicals, who have benefitted most from this freedom, and who used to (in my lifetime) champion it as fiercely as any ACLU lawyer, are now stealthily and not-so-stealthily working to make government and politicians agents for what they perceive to be God’s Will, which inevitably makes churches agents for politicians and the state.

What seems to have seduced them is the realization that the casual and near-universal Christian religiosity of this country has faded, requiring a hardier and more serious type of faith. While I never much minded the watery Christianity of civic life when I was a child–it was mainly a cultural totem like baseball or the “work ethic”–I also didn’t confuse it with serious faith. All those prayers in schools or at public events rarely reached the roof. So the Christian Right’s insistence that the “public square” is precisely where faith must be proclaimed lest we fall into barbarism never passed the laugh test with me. Moreover, the idea of a faith that cannot not survive mockery, or official neutrality, or the terrible insult of department store Xmas sales that don’t mention Jesus–would have come as a shock to those who actually suffered real persecution over the ages.

It’s unclear whether the National Day of Prayer is just a pallid revival of the watery Christianity of a bygone era, or, as Posner suspects, something a lot more menacing (I’m sure it’s the latter for many of its organizers, if not its participants). But let’s get one thing straight: this is not representative of the country generally, or of people of faith generally, or of Christians generally. It’s the project of a particular kind of Christian who for complicated and quite possibly sincere motives can’t seem to do without Constantine’s Sword. I pray they don’t succeed in their ambitions.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.