Let’s think for a moment about a national day of prayer. And, of course, the context of our reflection will be the National Day of Prayer scheduled to be observed on the first Thursday in May.
First, a few distortions need to corrected. For one thing, President Obama is not trying to cancel the day. The rumor about this is rooted in the ongoing nonsense that the president is not a Christian. This is simply not true.
In fact, ever since a federal judge ruled in April that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, the White House has been pushing back trying to get the ruling overturned.
President Obama has done what every president since Harry Truman has done – called for a national day of prayer. And just like every president since George H.W. Bush has done, the day is set for the first Thursday in May.
Even though the law establishing a national day of prayer was passed in 1952, the statute carries a provision that requires the day be declared annually by the president. There are several special days we observe as a nation that work this way, not the least of which is Thanksgiving Day.
But a national day of prayer is a little trickier, especially when it functions as a matter of law, and is declared by the president – any president.
For one thing, not everyone in America prays. There is no requirement in the Constitution that citizens practice any religion. And about 15 percent of Americans choose to exercise their freedom not to believe.
The president is president of the United States, not just president of the people who voted for him, not just the ones who believe the way he does, and not just the ones who pray the way he prays. So when the president calls for a national day of prayer, what does that mean for the 15 percent of Americans that don’t pray?
Of course the argument is immediately made that the law does not require anyone to pray but serves as an encouragement for those that do pray.
Well, if it’s voluntary, then why make a proclamation? Why have a law? Why not let houses of worship around the country call for a day of prayer rather than having the call come from the president of the whole United States?
And we must realize that even among the remaining citizens who do pray, there is much diversity in the practice of prayer. Even within the bounds of a single denomination, or even a single congregation, not everyone is going to pray the same way.
That, by the way, is my main concern with this issue. In an effort to get a prayer that works for everyone who does pray, we end up with a generic, all-purpose prayer that doesn’t have a lot of meat to it. When I pray, I want to use the full weight of what I believe about God to infuse that prayer. And obviously, that would not be a prayer everyone could or would say amen to.
But proponents of a National Day of Prayer can relax. The ruling will be overturned. A higher court will eventually determine that national prayers, such as those that take place at official gatherings or on special days, are largely ceremonial and do not rise to the level of an establishment of religion.
In other words, they are prayers of civil religion, not prayers of actual faith.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.