National Prayer Day Continues To Divide Americans, AU Charges

Once again, Religious Right leaders and politicians used last month’s National Day of Prayer (NDP) observances to politicize religion and divide Americans.

Americans United criticized the annual event, which takes place by federal law on the first Thursday of each May. According to AU, the observance gives Religious Right groups and their allies in public office a platform to push their political agenda and attack church-state separation.

In recent years, religious broadcaster James Dobson and his wife Shirley have assumed a leadership role in promoting the event. In materials released by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a group based in Colorado Springs with annual revenues of just under $2 million, Shirley Dobson bluntly states that only Christian groups that endorse the Lau­sanne Covenant, an evangelical statement from the 1970s, should be invited to take part.

This year’s theme was “America, Honor God,” based on a passage from the first Book of Samuel.

“At a time when so many principles found in Scripture have been rejected by society, it’s all the more vital that God’s people stand firmly in defense of the precepts He’s laid out in His Word,” said Shirley Dobson. “As we wage this cultural battle, however, none of our efforts are assured success without constant, fervent prayer for God’s intervention.”

The Dobsons organized and attended a White House ceremony marking the NDP. Other Religious Right leaders present included Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

During his remarks, President George W. Bush said, “America is a nation of prayer. It’s impossible to tell the story of our nation without telling the story of people who pray.”

Bush also issued a proclamation calling on Americans to pray. It read in part, “Through prayer, our faith is strengthened, our hearts humbled and our lives are transformed. May our Nation always have the humility to trust in the goodness of God’s plans.”

Also attending the White House event was Dr. Henry Blackaby, the honorary chairman of the NDP for 2006. Blackaby is author of an evangelical tome titled Experiencing Prayer with Jesus.

Americans United criticized the NDP.

“James Dobson has shamelessly exploited the National Day of Prayer to advance his divisive political agenda,” said Americans United Executive Direc­tor Barry W. Lynn. “This merger of religion and politics is exactly what our nation’s founding fathers hoped to avoid.”

Lynn noted that James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, said governmental prayer proclamations “certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion” and warned that public officials would use such proclamations to advance their political agendas. Thomas Jeffer­son, as president, refused to issue prayer proclamations and said the Constitution forbids the federal government from “intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.”

Lynn noted that this year, Mrs. Dobson even boasts that her group’s Web site is the “National Day of Prayer Official Website,” although she does not say who gave the group this “official” designation. 

Many states rely on the NDP Task Force to shape their events. Material released by the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) noted that in 2005, 26 states adopted the NDP Task Force’s theme for their prayer days.

TFN, which opposes the activities of the Religious Right, also noted that in 2005, NDP volunteers booked space at the Plano, Texas, city hall and refused to allow non-Christians to take part.

This year, a flap arose in Springfield, Ill., where a local group called Business­men in Christ organized NDP activities at the state capitol building. The group excluded all non-Christian speakers and on its Web site proclaimed that the gathering was “only about Jesus and Jesus the Savior alone.”

Sue Stoltz, who coordinates NDP activities in six Midwestern states, said she had no problem inviting a rabbi but that Muslims and Hindus would not be allowed to speak if they attended.

The better answer, she said, is “en­couraging them to do their own day of prayer.”

Americans United had to remind one community not to sponsor religious worship on the National Day of Prayer. Officials in Portsmouth, Va., promoted city-sponsored religious events to mark the NDP. AU attorneys warned them to drop the sponsorship.

“To be sure, city officials, as individuals, have the same rights as anyone else to participate in religious events connected with the National Day of Prayer. But the events themselves must be organized, funded, and sponsored entirely by private organizations,” observed AU attorneys in a letter to city officials. When city officials refused to respond, AU attorneys filed a public-records request.