Religious broadcasters across America gave President George W. Bush an election-year boost May 6 by sending his comments about the National Day of Prayer nationwide via cable television and satellite.
A group called America's National Prayer Committee held a "Concert of Prayer" the evening of May 6 that was broadcast nationwide. The NPC event included recorded comments by Bush speaking from the White House. The Committee made a feed of the event available to all broadcasters for free, knowing that only evangelical outlets would likely be interested.
As The Washington Post noted, "For Bush, the broadcast is an opportunity to address a sympathetic evangelical audience without the risk of alienating secular or non-Christian viewers, because it will not be carried in full by the major television networks."
Frank Wright, president of the National Association of Religious Broadcasters, told The Post before the three-hour event that he expected more than one million evangelicals to tune in.
The Bush reelection campaign is aggressively courting conservative Christians. Although many evangelicals are solidly Republican voters, Bush strategists worry they will not be motivated to vote in November. In a close election, a lack of participation by evangelicals could make a difference.
Mark Fried, a spokesman for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group based at the headquarters of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, denied any partisan intent. (The Task Force is a project of the National Prayer Committee.)
"We're in an election year, and we believe God cares who's in those positions of authority," Fried said. "But we're not endorsing a candidate, just praying that God's hand will be on the election."
Vonette Bright, NPC founder and widow of Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, insisted that the Task Force promoted the event with equal enthusiasm during the years of Bill Clinton's presidency.
Bright told The Post that any "politicization" of the National Day of Prayer "would be so unfortunate."
Added Bright, "I don't think he [Bush] has a political agenda of his own. I think he's really trying to do what would please God."
But critics noted that the theme of this year's event, "Let Freedom Ring," reflected the Religious Right's contention that religious freedom is under assault because of court rulings striking down government display of the Ten Commandments.
"Our theme is, there is a small group of activists unleashing an all-out assault on our religious freedoms," said the NRB's Wright. "They are targeting the Christian faith."
At a White House prayer day event Thursday afternoon, Bush kept his remarks low key, calling on the nation to embrace prayer.
"Our part, our calling," said Bush, "is to align our hearts and action with God's plan, insofar as we can know it.... We cannot be neutral in the face of injustice or cruelty or evil. God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know He is on the side of justice. And it is the deepest strength of America that from the hour of our founding, we have chosen justice as our goal."
Bush's speech did include a number of subtle signals likely to resonate with an evangelical audience, but be missed by secular news reporters. He spoke of Americans bringing their concerns to God, "our help in ages past, our hope for years to come" – a line from the 1719 Isaac Watts hymn "O God, Our Help in Ages Past."
Bush also quoted the Lord's Prayer and said the mercy of God extends to all and will endure forever, a reference to Psalm 136. He also spoke of the need to fix "every wrong that has denied the value and dignity of life," a veiled reference to abortion.
Bush was surrounded by Christian leaders and one Jewish rabbi, but no Muslims were invited onto the program. Bright told The Post her group does not work with certain religious denominations.
"They are free to have their own national day of prayer if they want to," she said. "We are a Christian task force."
During the White House event, Bush acknowledged the role of Shirley Dobson, head of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, who attended along with her husband James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.
Remarked Bush, "We're also glad you brought Jim with you."
Also attending were a bevy of evangelical leaders, including Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land, head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
A political analyst later told the Associated Press that the White House ceremony had obvious political implications for Bush.
"This is stroke the base, stroke the base, stroke the base," said John Kenneth White of Catholic University. "It's not the old Protestant versus Catholic gap, but one between those who attend church regularly versus those who seldom or never go. Bush hasn't divided us, but I think this prayer event serves to reinforce that existing division."
Americans United criticized the NPC broadcast of Bush's remarks, saying its partisan overtones were unmistakable.
"This event has strong underpinnings of partisan support for the president, and that's what it's designed to do," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, told the AP. "It's not like he's ignoring other religious groups, but he knows that this day is the one where he signals, 'I am an evangelical Christian. Remember that in November.'"
At a separate NDP Task Force observance at a Capitol Hill office building, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told about 350 attendees that Bush reads a Bible passage every day to ease the burden of his responsibilities.
Bush "understands freedom is not America's gift to the world; it's God's gift to humanity," Ashcroft told the crowd.
The National Day of Prayer was written into federal law by Congress in 1952. For many years, it had no fixed date, but in 1988 Congress passed legislation mandating that the event take place annually on the first Thursday in May. In recent years, the event has been taken over by the NDP Task Force, which uses it to promote Religious Right issues and inaccurate "Christian nation" history.
According to financial records, the National Prayer Committee had an annual budget of over $1.8 million in 2002.