On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer to be declared by each succeeding president at an appropriate date chosen by that president. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to that law that provides that the National Day of Prayer shall be held on the first Thursday of May. Hence, today is the date designated for the 2009 National Day of Prayer. The original intent was for this to be a day when persons of all faiths could pray for the nation in their diverse ways.
Sadly, this intended time of interfaith prayerfulness, humility and unity appears to have become a victim to religious imperialism and Christian fundamentalism associated with Focus on the Family, the organization founded by James Dobson. The National Day of Prayer Task Force is a non-governmental organization created by the National Prayer Committee. However, its stated purpose is to coordinate events for “evangelical Christians.” When one visits the task force’s web site, one learns that Dobson’s wife, Shirley, chairs the event, and that prayers are urged to be offered for U.S. government, military, media, churches and family in keeping with the Judeo-Christian tradition.
As an ordained Baptist minister, I certainly agree that prayer is urgently needed for the United States and the rest of our world. With so many people in vulnerable situations on so many levels (physically, financially, emotionally, socially, legally and otherwise), prayers of confession, intercession and repentance are desperately needed. We should be coming together to pray for healing, humility and reconciliation. We should be praying for our planet, people throughout the world who are suffering, and for wisdom to be instruments of hope, unity, justice and healing rather than agents of violence (including militarism), self-centered materialism and imperialistic opportunism.
Yet, the efforts of the task force are disquieting for several reasons.
First, the task force appears more interested in using the National Day of Prayer for recruitment to its fundamentalist notion of Christianity rather than unifying Americans of all faith and social backgrounds. Media Matters reports that in 2004 Shirley Dobson barred Mormons from conducting services during National Day of Prayer ceremonies.
The Christian fundamentalist emphasis appears elsewhere in the task force’s web site. At various points, one reads that prayer is needed because the traditional notions of family and marriage are under attack. One wonders how divorced persons, single parents and unmarried cohabiting persons (whatever their sexual orientation might be) can comfortably consider themselves invited to join in prayer for their families alongside people who openly deny that their families are legitimate.
At some point the task force forgot – assuming that they ever believed – that the National Day of Prayer is not a sectarian or partisan observance, but a time of prayer for people of all faiths, political ideologies and social situations. Given such glaring evidence of sectarianism, we should hope that most people of faith will not confuse the National Day of Prayer with James and Shirley Dobson, Focus on the Family, the National Day of Prayer Task Force and an imperial Christianity agenda that tramples and marginalizes the poor, vulnerable, immigrants or others who are different from the majority of our population in the name of God and democracy. The National Day of Prayer is an American observance for people of all faiths and situations, not a forum for religious apartheid.
Today, I will join Americans of all faiths, colors and backgrounds, family situations and political ideologies, including ideologies I oppose, in prayer. I hope we pray humbly, reverently and honestly. I hope we pray together in confession and repentance about our egregious ways of perpetrating injustice against the poor, weak, vulnerable and unpopular. I hope we repent about our sins against the earth and the other creatures that inhabit it. I hope we repent for our refusal to repent in years past of our glaring and our covert national sins. I hope we are thankful, hopeful and unified in asking God to inspire our leaders to be wise, humble, compassionate and devoted to peace through justice for all persons.
However, I have nothing but contempt for efforts to pervert the National Day of Prayer into an exercise in religious segregation, whether those efforts are taken by the National Day of Prayer Task Force or anyone else. Today, I intend to be part of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often termed “the beloved community” in prayer, not part of a neo-Jim Crow imperial version of Christian fundamentalism.
Wendell L. Griffen is a Baptist minister and law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law. He is also owner/CEO of a consulting firm and parliamentarian of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. He lives with his wife in Little Rock, Ark.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.