Prayer, Piety And Politics

How The National Day Of Prayer Became A Religious Right Platform For Opposing Church-State Separation

Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, wanted her audience of over 300 to clearly understand why they had assembled in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., May 2.

"If you've come today to this prayer gathering to hear some well known people, or maybe to meet them, or to just come to an event, you've come to the wrong place," Dobson said. "We are gathered here today with solemn and serious hearts; we've come for the Lord.... We are a hurting nation and we are here to ask for God's forgiveness."

With that, Dobson kicked off the 51st annual observance of the National Day of Prayer (NDP) in the nation's capital. Thousands of state and local events took place nationwide as well.

For supporters of church-state separation, the fact that the NDP even exists as a government-endorsed exercise is troubling. Those concerns were amplified, however, by the bold intermingling of government, politics and religion that dominated this year's activities.

The NDP was established as an annual event by an act of Congress in 1952. Before then, there were occasional instances of official prayer proclamations by Congress and presidents. In 1988, at the behest of the Religious Right, Congress officially set the date as the first Thursday in May.

Over the last decade, a private Religious Right group known as the National Day of Prayer Task Force has effectively taken the lead in organizing and promoting NDP events, and the organization coordinates virtually all of the prayer day activities in Washington, D.C., and around the country. The Task Force claims that it helped set up about 40,000 observances of the NDP this year.

The NDP Task Force is headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right radio broadcaster James Dobson, and operates from the headquarters of his Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Task Force's National Advisory Committee features well-known political and religious figures, including Bill Bright, Chuck Colson, former Christian Coalition President Don Hodel, Kay Cole James, Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.). The list also includes Karen Santorum, Rep. Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) wife, and Janet Ashcroft, Attorney General John Ashcroft's wife. The group receives no public funds, and is incorporated as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization.

If the goal of the Task Force was to seize control of the National Day of Prayer to advance a Religious Right message and agenda, it has succeeded. Though the group does not have formal ties with the government, it has assumed a pseudo-official role. This year, for example, a congressional office building served as the venue for the Capitol Hill NDP event and it reflected a fundamentalist Christian bent.

The occasion featured representatives of all three branches of the federal government, a military chaplain to represent the armed forces and the chaplains from the U.S. House and Senate.

Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie, who offered the "prayer of blessing" at the NDP event, drew the ire of First Amendment advocates for his work with the Religious Right group.

Ogilvie, a minister who serves as a pastor to members of the Senate, is a government employee whose salary is financed by taxpayers. (The current federal budget allots $288,000 to Ogilvie's office.) Nevertheless, Ogilvie wrote a "Prayer For America" for the NDP Task Force this year. Ogilvie's prayer was written to "acknowledge [God's] sovereignty" and asks God to grant "supernatural powers" to the president and Congress. It commits the nation "to be faithful to You as Sovereign of our land and as our personal Lord and Savior."

"We rededicate ourselves to be one nation under You," Ogilvie's prayer says. "In You we trust. We reaffirm our accountability to You, to the absolutes of Your Commandments, and to justice in our society."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it's disconcerting that a chaplain, whose Senate work is financed by taxpayers, would presume to write official prayers for the whole country.

"It's bad enough that the government is telling people when to pray," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It's even worse when a publicly funded minister is telling us what to pray. For anyone who takes the First Amendment seriously, this fusion of religion and government is indefensible."

At the NDP event, Ogilvie offered remarks that reflected little appreciation for separating religion and government.

"Forgive us when we neglect our spiritual heritage as a nation," Ogilvie said. "Help us when we become dulled and forget our accountability to you and the moral absolutes that your Commandments bring. Without absolute righteousness, morality, honesty, integrity and faithfulness, our society operates in a raucous relativism, while the prosperity of our times camouflages the poverty of our soul."

Ogilvie went on to ask God to "wake us up to the realization that all we have as a nation is your gift. That relationship with you is a grateful trust. Make our motto 'In God We Trust' more than a slogan, but a profound expression of our dependence on you to guide and bless this nation."

President George W. Bush also marked the NDP by issuing a White House proclamation. This year's edict, which cites a quotation from the Christian scriptures by St. Paul, calls "upon the Almighty to continue to bless America and her people" and asks Americans to "seek moral and spiritual renewal." It was the fourth time in his 15 months in office that the president has issued an official decree urging Americans to pray.

In addition, Bush hosted an NDP event in the White House the evening of May 2. Bush told an audience of about 200 that "prayer is a vital part of our national life" and that "America is a country of faith."

"Prayer for others is a generous act," Bush said, sounding more like a preacher than a public official. "It sweeps away bitterness and heals old wounds. Prayer leads to greater humility and a more grateful spirit. It strengthens our commitment to things that last and things that matter. It deepens our love for one another." The president also singled out Shirley Dobson to thank her for her Task Force's work, thus offering an official endorsement of the Religious Right group's efforts.

Nationwide, there was intense pressure on public officials to acknowledge the official religious observance. This year, 48 governors issued proclamations to honor the National Day of Prayer. The only two to refrain were Montana Governor Judy Martz (R), who issues no proclamations for any reason, and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (I), who said designation of an official prayer day is inconsistent with church-state separation.

In Washington, at the NDP Task Force's Capitol Hill event, a legion of Christian speakers from government and the religious community offered praise for prayer.

Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), who offered remarks on behalf of the legislative branch, implored his audience to recognize the importance of religious worship.

"If we're one nation under God, we should be a nation speaking to God," McIntyre said. "Because, after all, when a person prays, it's two people talking who love each other." He asked attendees to "pray that more people will be open to God," and closed his remarks, "In Christ Jesus, God bless you."

The explicitly Christian theme of the NDP Task Force's activities was ubiquitous, but not unexpected. As the group freely admits, events organized by the Task Force are for Christians who share the Religious Right's fundamentalist perspective. While NDP Task Force materials claim "the National Day of Prayer belongs to all Americans," the group also says its events are exclusively for Christians.

This exclusivity was on display inside the Beltway and at the local level. In Ventura County, Calif., several religious groups have grown frustrated by the exclusively Christian tilt of the annual NDP activities at the county's government center. This year, a local Jewish leader joined with a Muslim leader and several local Christian pastors to host an interfaith event that was designed to bring the community together.

"This is a statement that Ventura County celebrates diversity and that no one religion has the right to dominate the American cultural scene," Rabbi John Sherwood of Oxnard, president of the Ventura Interfaith Ministerial Association, told the Los Angeles Times. "The founders of this nation pictured a nation of diversity."

Instead of embracing the spirit of ecumenism, the NDP Task Force's local representatives rejected any part in the interfaith event, opting for a fundamentalist event that took place afterwards.

"In our heart it is to be inclusive," Fawn Parish of Ventura's South Coast Fellowship Church told the Times. "But it's not time to sit down and sing 'Kumbaya.' This is not a conversation day. We believe Jesus is distinctive."

This approach to religious liberty and diversity has led the Religious Right to give praise and encouragement to the NDP Task Force. In addition to Focus on the Family's enthusiastic support, Task Force materials have repeatedly included revisionist history crafted by Religious Right propagandists. For the 2002 NDP, the Task Force is promoting a statement from Jay Sekulow, head of TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, which argues that government promotion of religion is both legal and useful.

Only a few notable Religious Right leaders were on hand for the Capitol Hill gathering, but the movement's viewpoints were well represented.

Though his wife took the lead in hosting the NDP event, James Dobson did step to the dais to welcome attendees and offer some of his ideas about American history.

"This is the 51st annual National Day of Prayer, but National Days of Prayer go all the way back to 1775, when our Founding Fathers recognized that they desperately needed the wisdom of God in designing this country," Dobson said. "We're carrying on that tradition today." (Dobson failed to mention that delegates to the Constitutional Convention met without invocational prayers and ignored a proposal to open their sessions with morning prayers.)

The Religious Right's perspective on religion and government was not without a champion at the May 2 event. The Rev. Gary Bergel, who serves on the NDP Task Force's 23-member "National Prayer Committee," offered attendees the most outwardly political message of the day's speakers. Ultimately, there weren't many issues on the Religious Right's radar screen that Bergel failed to mention.

In a speech that was billed as a "prayer for the legislative branch," Bergel instead went on a tear about culture war issues that serve as red meat for Religious Right activists. He praised the "biblical foundations of our country," before condemning legalized abortion, religiously neutral public schools, lawsuits against state-endorsed Ten Commandments displays and the fact that witnesses are no longer forced to swear on the Bible before testifying in America's courtrooms.

"We gather here in Washington, D.C., assembled by the will of a living God that Jesus Christ has been ordained to be the judge of this land," said Bergel, who is president of Intercessors for America. "He alone is the absolute authority. Jesus desires to lead through judges throughout our land. We thank you, Lord, for the Judeo-Christian foundations of our land. We ask you...to identify judges who may stray into judicial activism. Convert them or remove them."

Bergel's remarks offered a glimpse of a Religious Right activist with unusual theological views. In materials distributed by Intercessors for America, Bergel has said that he believes Satan is actively involved in spreading superstition in this country in order to cause "revengeful acts of violence." He also has called for an exorcism of the White House because of Nancy Reagan's reliance on astrology and Hillary Clinton's alleged use of "s\xe9ances and necromancy."

While Bergel spoke on a broad Religious Right agenda, moralist and former Reagan administration Education Secretary Bill Bennett addressed a narrow agenda: bashing America's public schools.

Bennett, in fact, was the only speaker who didn't even mention the role of religion in his life. Instead, to the delight of his audience, he used the occasion of the National Day of Prayer to attack public education.

"The longer you stay in school in America, the dumber you get relative to children in other countries," Bennett said. "And that is a shame and a disgrace."

Bennett also gave praise to the home school movement, which with increasing frequency has families paying for a computer-based curriculum that Bennett himself is selling.

As he does routinely, Bennett also called on political leaders to subsidize religious schools through vouchers, touting "educational choice" and "giving parents the right to educate their child in any environment they see fit."

Bennett and other speakers made repeated references to the role of religion in the founding of the nation, and many asserted that the Founding Fathers approved of official recognition of religion. Ironically, key Founders such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson thought governmental prayer day proclamations were violations of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Jefferson, the nation's third president and a leading visionary on religious liberty, refused to issue prayer proclamations. Writing to the Rev. Samuel Miller in 1808, he said, "Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, 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."

Madison, widely recognized by historians as the "Father of the Constitution," also considered prayer proclamations to be inappropriate. Although he issued a few while president under political pressure from Congress, he later said such proclamations are inappropriate.

In a collection of writings referred to as the "Detached Memoranda," Madison said religious proclamations by the government "seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion."

For church-state separationists, Madison and Jefferson's words still ring true.