Wrong time, wrong place

Just to prove I am an equal opportunity critiquer (and yes, I did just make up that word), today I am going to offer some criticism of one of the conservative right’s most revered figures, Dr. James Dobson.

On May 1 Dobson used the platform of the National Day of Prayer to criticize President Barack Obama. If you read this blog you are well aware that I am not opposed to criticizing President Obama when appropriate. Furthermore, given that this space is my own personal blog, I can say whatever I want here. Anyone who wants to read it is welcome to and anyone who would rather not is welcome to skip it. Dr. Dobson has plenty of vehicles for sharing his thoughts about the president, and I am not opposed to the fact that he criticized Obama or even, actually, what he said. Dr. Dobson, however, chose an inappropriate time and venue to make his comments.

According to the National Day of Prayer’s own web site, “The National Day of Prayer is an annual observance held on the first Thursday of May, inviting people of all faiths to pray for the nation. … It stands as a call for us to humbly come before God, seeking His guidance for our leaders and His grace upon us as a people.” The site goes on to state that the National Day of Prayer unites “Americans from all socio-economic, political and ethnic backgrounds in prayer for our nation.” Quite simply, the National Day of Prayer is to be a non-partisan event wherein political differences are put aside so that those from anywhere along the political spectrum who believe in the God of the Bible can join together in seeking His wisdom, guidance and blessing for America. The National Day of Prayer is intended to be, in a word, nonpartisan.

During his remarks this year, however, Dr. Dobson said, “Before [Obama] was elected, he made it very clear that he wanted to be the abortion president. He didn’t make any bones about it, that this is something that he was really going to promote and support. And he has done that. And in a sense, he is the abortion president.”

Even if you agree with Dobson’s comments–and as I said above, I do–it is clear based on the description of the National Day of Prayer that this was neither the time nor the place for Dobson to make this statement. If the gathering is truly supposed to welcome those from all political backgrounds this is an offensive statement. California Democratic Representative Janice Hahn walked out of the gathering because of Dobson’s remarks. To my knowledge she is the only one who did so, and Dobson seized on this fact to legitimize and defend his remarks.

According to an article on ChristianPost.com, Dobson “told [FOX News’ Megyn] Kelly that, in his speech, he wasn’t only referencing Obama, but was also talking about people’s response to the mandate and abortion, in general. ‘It’s very difficult for people who aren’t part of the sanctity of life movement to understand just how intensely we feel the issue of the killing of babies.'” I feel intensely about the killing of babies, too. There is probably no issue on which I feel more intensely. But the National Day of Prayer is not the place to make the remark Dobson made and, try though he might, there is no way to interpret his remarks to mean anything other than a direct attack on Barack Obama.

Hahn told Roll Call, “We have this annual, national day of prayer, which is supposed to bring the whole country together to pray for our nation, and typically you put politics aside and you come together. Dr. Dobson just absolutely violated that, and I really think he did damage to what we try to do up here in Washington, D.C.” I may have never said this before and may never say it again, I don’t know, but I agree with Rep. Hahn.

Dobson told Megyn Kelly, “One person chose to walk out, as far as we know, and that’s what everybody focuses on. But the people who were there were with me 100 percent, because they also believe in the sanctity of human life.” If it is not hyperbole that is an incredibly bold assertion to make. I find it difficult to believe that Dobson knows what everyone in the room thinks about the sanctity of life. Even if he did, and even if everyone in the room not only defends the sanctity of life but believes that Obama is the “abortion president,” it was still not the right time for Dobson to make his statement.

In April, when the National Day of Prayer was highly criticized for being a “searingly sectarian event” that promoted evangelical beliefs, John Bornschein, the vice chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, said that the event was nonsectarian and was “purely about prayer and praying for our leadership and asking for God’s wisdom and blessing over our leaders.” That is indeed what the event should be. As Rep. Hahn said, however, James Dobson “hijacked” the event to promote his own views. There are plenty of ways in which the sanctity of life could have been supported and defended without specifically attacking the president. If Dobson wanted to go after the president specifically he could have followed up on his comments at the event with additional comments later on, adding the attack on Obama. After all, it is not as if Dobson has ever had a hard time attracting media attention.

Do Christians need to take a public stand in defense of the sanctity of life? Absolutely. They must not do it, though, at events that are advertised and promoted as being nonsectarian and nonpartisan. This is deceptive, inappropriate and, in my opinion, harms the testimony of the Church.

National Day of Prayer

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.