Blessing Bush: Partisan Day of Prayer?

Is the National Day of Prayer Task Force using its non-profit status to broadcast a partisan message in this heated election season? President Bush hosted a National Day of Prayer event with religious leaders at the White House today, and the event will be broadcast in prime-time tonight on evangelical Christian cable and satellite TV outlets as well as on  the Internet. "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," according to The Washington Post.

While mainstream America watches the final episode of Friends, more than a million evangelicals will watch the president receive the de facto endorsement of major Religious Right preachers --  and vice versa. "Over the years, the National Day of Prayer has gradually been adopted more and more by the religious right, and this year in particular there is such an undercurrent of partisanship because for the first time they are broadcasting Bush's message in an election year," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, Americans United executive director.

At an event on Capitol Hill this morning, a string of speakers –- ranging from Attorney General John Ashcroft to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon -- cast a mantle of religiosity over the government. National Day of Prayer Task Force spokesman Mark Fried said "we're in an election year, and we believe God cares who's in those positions of authority.... [We're] just praying that God's hand will be on the election."

But partisanship isn't the only thing plaguing the National Day of Prayer Task Force. "We are a Christian Task Force," said Vonette Bright, who -- along with Shirley Dobson -- founded the organization. (Bright and Dobson are wives of prominent evangelical leaders.) In Salt Lake City, Mormons have protested being shut out of the group's events, and in Oklahoma, the local Americans United chapter and mainstream Baptists organized a counter event to protest the exclusively Christian character of NDP Task Force observances. Muslims are also excluded from Task Force events.

Despite the presence of a rabbi at a Task Force ceremony held in the Capitol, all the rest of the speakers encouraged the audience to embrace the truth of the New Testament. Such religious exclusivity is the reason that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson opposed official prayer proclamations. It can only serve to further religious conflict in American society when the president declares a prayer day on average every 2.6 months and endorses divisive Religious Right groups.