You may not realize it, but this is a significant day in the United States. Yes, it is Cinco de Mayo, which means you can have your fill of margaritas and guacamole. But it’s also the National Day of Prayer (NDP) – and that means we’re all getting treated to a big bowl of church-state mixing.
Thanks to a joint resolution passed by Congress in 1952, the president is required to set aside one day per year so “the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation.” It wasn’t until 1988, however, that the event was codified as the first Thursday in May.
Every president since 1952 has followed the order, meaning every year Americans are told by their government that they should pray. This is a clear violation of what the Founding Fathers intended. After all, while president Thomas Jefferson notably refused to offer any official prayer proclamations because of his concern for separation between church and state.
Making matters worse, the NDP was years ago hijacked by the Religious Right, which uses it to to promote religious bigotry and spread misinformation. Recently, most NDP activities have been coordinated by the “National Day of Prayer Task Force,” a private organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., and run by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right radio broadcaster James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.
Amusingly, NDP’s website offers a quote from Jefferson as “evidence” in support of government-backed prayer. They sliced and diced the quote and pulled it out of context. In reality, Jefferson was actually explaining why he believed it was improper for government officials to issue prayer proclamations.
“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercises…,” Jefferson wrote in an 1808 letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller. “I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, its doctrines, nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and praying are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has the right to determine for itself the times for these exercise and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets, and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
The theme of this year’s NDP is “Wake Up America,” which is fitting since that is exactly what the Religious Right needs to do – wake up and realize that this is a multi-faith, multi-philosophy nation where government should stay neutral on matters of theology.
Thankfully, some people of faith are speaking out against NDP, noting that Jesus encouraged his followers to pray privately. As the Rev. Chris Nye wrote in today’s edition of The Washington Post:
“Whenever we Christians are making other people very aware we are praying, I think about Jesus’ simple teaching to us about prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount, he tells us, ‘And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.’ Instead, Jesus tells us to go into a room alone, shut the door, and ‘pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you in secret.’”
Of course the Religious Right as a whole has never been above hypocrisy or dishonesty when it comes to advancing its theocratic goals. Sadly, the far right’s influence over the United States has resulted in official, government-issued proclamations telling Americans that they should pray at least once per year. But the truth is, no one needs to be told whether or when to pray – and many believers know that the best expressions of faith are the ones kept “in secret,” as Jesus said.