Today is the annual National Day of Prayer. Since 1952, when Congress mandated the event, there has been an annual day set aside to pray for our nation. In 1988 the law was amended, setting aside the first Thursday in May as the Day of Prayer. Long before it became a law, however, there were instances of national prayer, and presidential proclamations encouraging prayer. It is impossible to read the history of the United States or the original documents of the Founding Fathers are come to any conclusion other than the Founders’ belief that prayer is important and appropriate, and that national proclamations and days of prayer in no way violate any separation of church and state the Constitution may require.
The National Day of Prayer is most prominently observed by evangelical Christians, and the chair of the NDP has long been Shirley Dobson, the wife of Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. The day is not reserved for Christians, however, and it is not an exclusively Christian event. President Obama, in his proclamation for this year’s NDP, said “… I invite all citizens of our Nation, as their own faith directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy, and I call upon individuals of all faiths to pray for guidance, grace, and protection for our great Nation as we address the challenges of our time.”
While my faith directs me in a very definite way, and while I am one of those “intolerant” people who believes that biblical Christian faith is the only true faith, I also happen to respect the right of every individual to exercise his or her own faith, and I agree with the President that each person should give thanks and pray in accordance with their faith tradition.
In today’s Faith and Reason column on USAToday.com, Cathy Grossman writes, “The very conservative evangelicals who control the privately-run celebration will do their thing. The coalition led by Shirley Dobson allows only people who agree with a specific Christian expression of prayer to take the microphone at their events although all are welcome to attend and say amen.” It is clear from her tone that she does not approve. I cannot help but ask why? If the “celebration” (and I question the use of that word for the event) is privately run, why should the organizers not be free to set their own guidelines and limit the public prayer to those whose faith is consistent with their own? I would not expect any private event to do otherwise. If the organizers of a private event want to have an ecumenical event, or an event that includes many faiths, that’s great. If they want to have an event that adheres strictly to their own faith, equally great. If there happens to be a NDP event organized by Muslims I would not expect them to invite Christians to pray at their event.
The oh-so-tolerant organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State has, of course, made their annual opposition known. Director Barry Lynn said, “Americans don’t need to be told when or whether to pray….” Agreed. Americans can and do pray all the time without being told or invited to do so. But there is also absolutely no problem with the President, the Congress, a governor or a mayor inviting and even encouraging people to pray. The only problem would come if any of those individuals were to mandate prayer, and no one is doing that.
Stephen Prothero, in his My Take blog on CNN.com, titled his entry today, “Dear God: How to Pray on National Day of Prayer?” He raises interesting points and questions in his blog. He seems to respect the right and desire of people of any faith to pray in a manner consistent with their faith, but he also asks questions about whether any one faith should become the “national voice” and whether we as a nation are guilty of using God rather than following Him. Good questions, and worthy of consideration and discussion.
Here’s where I come down. The theme selected by the NDP task force for this year is Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” I do not think the Lord is the God of the United States of America. By that I mean not that He is not sovereign over the U.S., because I believe that He is sovereign over everything. I mean that I do not believe that America, as a nation, has submitted itself to God, His ways and His will. As I have said here before, our nation is not a theocracy, and I am not sure that I think it should be. However, ours is a nation founded on religious freedom, and that freedom does, and should, include the right both of the President to call on the nation to pray, of the Congress to set aside a day to be known as the National Day of Prayer, and of the NDP Task Force to design its events for the day in ways consistent with its faith and belief, even when that includes disallowing those whose faiths and beliefs are not consistent with its own.
As for me, I put my faith in the God of the Bible. I believe that both the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired, infallible Word of God, and I desire to be a follower of Christ. Accordingly, I will pray to the God of the Bible. Having accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on my behalf I have forgiveness of sins, and I have the right to go boldly before the throne of God and speak to Him directly (Hebrews 4:16). And that’s what I will do…today and everyday. I will continue to ask God to protect this nation, to give discernment to our leaders, to cause our nation to desire to turn to Him. And I will continue to thank God that I have that right.