A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
Americans are faced with a difficult choice today. More difficult even, than deciding what kind of mustard will best illustrate their commitment to this nation.
It is the first Thursday in May: Will you be celebrating prayer or reason?
Signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1952 after an all-out crusade by evangelist Billy Graham, the National Day of Prayer was officially established as an annual celebration for the first Thursday in May by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Apparently this was part of Reagan’s lesser-known “tear down this wall” goal, designed to destroy barriers between church and state.
Eschewing the attention afforded to the Christian right on this day for the past eight years, President Obama will not attend a public event commemorating the day. Obama has been commended by several groups that promote separation of church and state for this choice.
But the National Prayer Day Task Force, led by the wife of Focus on the Family founder and fundamentalist James Dobson, is clearly miffed. From the Chicago Tribune:
“We are disappointed in the lack of participation by the Obama administration,” said Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, who for the past eight years has attended a White House ceremony with her husband, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. “At this time in our country’s history, we would hope our president would recognize more fully the importance of prayer.”
Not that they really have reason to be. As Alan Colmes points out, many presidents have not attended the special service and Obama would not have been allowed to speak at the event anyway, since he is pro-choice.
Still, the president will sign a proclamation today that honors the holiday. So think of how organizers of the National Day of Reason, created in opposition to National Prayer Day in 2003, feel with their own proclamation gaining no ground at all. Perhaps they hope the president would recognize more fully the importance of reason?
Despite Obama’s inclusion of non-believers in his inaugural address and his insistence that we are not a Christian nation, the National Day of Reason doesn’t seem any more popular than it has been in previous years. Indeed, judging from the Web activity of sites promoting the day, interest has dropped off since that militant born-again guy left the Oval Office.
Now while reason is a nice concept, prayer is a comfortable, cross-theistic idea for government to promote. It’s understandable that Obama, who has had to overcome rumors that he’s Muslim, the anti-Christ, and an atheist, would not want to alienate the religious community by declining participation in the recognition of prayer. Even atheists can comfortably submit to a moment of reflection.
But the task force for the National Day of Prayer doesn’t see it that way. The annual joint resolution in Congress promoting the day is pretty much non-denominational, allowing that “the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”
Reading the task force’s mission statement, one would think Christians invented prayer. It is unabashedly Christian and clearly sets its sights on the seat of power in this country (emphasis mine):
The National Day of Prayer Task Force’s mission is to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer, mobilizing the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership in the seven centers of power: Government, Military, Media, Business, Education, Church and Family.
One of their seven values of the task force is to “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage.” The group is trying to paint America as a Christian nation in quite a transparent way. This misleading idea requires the twisting and cherry-picking of the words of our founding fathers. A 2006 Harvard study noted historical opposition to a national religion from the pillars of our society:
Presidents have disagreed on the desirability of national days of prayer: Thomas Jefferson, in an 1808 letter to the Reverend Samuel Miller, wrote “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.” In James Madison’s 1817 Detached Memoranda, he expressed doubts about national days of prayer, as “they seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”
The White House must have seen this coming. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has defended the president’s right to pray in private several times recently, saying this in response to questions about plans for the National Day of Prayer in a press conference Tuesday:
Prayer is something that the president does every day… the president understands, in his own life and in his family’s life, the role that prayer plays. And I would denote that administrations prior to the past one did proclamations. That’s the way the president will publicly observe National Prayer Day. But as I said, privately he’ll pray as he does every day.
But that’s not saying the Obama Administration hopes to eventually end the tradition. The president has asked a Wisconsin judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought in opposition to the National Day of Prayer by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that challenges the constitutionality of the holiday.
The multi-faith Web site ReligiousTolerance.org supports the idea of government promoting both holidays, contending that supporting just the National Day of Prayer alone is unconstitutional for several reasons. Incidentally, I’m not sure why celebrating both holidays makes the Constitution happier. Do two revelries make a right?
Constitutionality aside, the utility of the holiday is in question. If the president prays every day, then what do we need a National Day of Prayer for? Same goes for every other religious person in the country. Whether you want to pray today, every day or just when you get into serious trouble, you shouldn’t need the government to sanction that activity.
If you’re going to ask that question, though, you have to follow it with this one: If we have one day a year to celebrate the exercise of reason, what happens the other 364 days? Is this unreasonableness where mandatory minimums come from?
The problem in this country is not a lack of theism. It is a preponderance of useless holidays. Both the National Prayer Day and the National Day of Reason are Hallmark Holidays in the sense that they were created by outside forces to sell something. Instead of cards, they sell the idea that Americans relate to the world in a uniform way, which simply isn’t true.
Now please excuse me; I need to send off a gift to Mom so that it gets there by Sunday.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS