President George W. Bush hosted Religious Right leader James Dobson at a White House event marking the National Day of Prayer May 1.
At an East Room ceremony attended by cabinet officers as well as members of the House of Representatives and Senate, Bush thanked Dobson’s wife, Shirley, for serving as chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group that oversees many Prayer Day activities.
Shirley Dobson opened the White House service with, as Focus on the Family later reported, a “strong, bold and winsome call for America to return to the Lord and pray for its leaders.”
Bush then took the podium.
Flanked by the choir of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from New York City, the president remarked, “I think one of the interesting things about a National Day of Prayer is it does help describe our nation’s character to others. We are a prayerful nation. A lot of citizens draw comfort from prayer. Prayer is an important part of the lives of millions of Americans.
“And it’s interesting, when you think about our faith, you can find it in the Pledge of Allegiance, you can find an expression of American faith in the Declaration of Independence, and you can find it in the coins in our pockets.
“Over the last seven years, our country has faced many trials,” Bush added. “And time and time again we have turned to prayer and found strength and resilience. We prayed with those who’ve lost everything in natural disasters, and helped them heal and recover and build....
“And as we pray for God’s continued blessings on our country,” he said, “I think it makes sense to hope that one day there may be a International Day of Prayer…. It will be a chance for people of faith around the world to stop at the same time to pause to praise an Almighty.”
Later in the day, the Dobsons’ NDP Task Force hosted a three-hour service on Capitol Hill. FOF reported that “officials, dignitaries and guests joined together in praying for the nation, its families, its government, its military, and the upcoming election.” Similar events took place around the country.
Americans United charged that the National Day of Prayer has been largely hijacked by the Religious Right and is being used as an opportunity to promote a far-right religious-political agenda.
“In many cases, this event is more about politics than prayer,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It’s just another excuse for the Religious Right to attack church-state separation.”
Lynn noted that the NDP Task Force’s Web site claims it is the “National Day of Prayer Official Web Site,” but, in fact, the group has no official status. The Task Force states that its purpose is to “Foster unity within the Christian Church” and “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage.” Non-Christians are usually prohibited from leading or speaking at NDP Task Force events.
The Task Force requires volunteer prayer coordinators to sign a fundamentalist statement of faith that declares that “the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of The Living God” and that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation.”
This year, some advocates of church-state separation fought back. Inclusive events open to people of all faiths and none were held in several cities.
Jews on First, an internet site that promotes church-state separation, launched a “Campaign for an Inclusive National Day of Prayer.” Jane Hunter, co-director of Jews on First, told the Christian Science Monitor that the day “has been hijacked. Only Christian clergy are invited to participate.”
In an opinion column that was distributed nationwide, AU’s Lynn and Interfaith Alliance Foundation President C. Welton Gaddy criticized the Religious Right’s takeover of the day.
“It’s debatable whether a nation founded on the constitutional separation of church and state needs a federal government reminder to pray in the first place,” wrote Lynn and Gaddy. “Chalk it up to a less pluralistic, less religiously sensitive age. But the National Day of Prayer really started to deteriorate in 1988, when the National Day of Prayer Task Force was created by the Religious Right, hijacking the National Day of Prayer in the name of those who would make their concept of God the only acceptable one.”
The National Day of Prayer was signed into law in 1952 by President Harry Truman. In 1988, Congress amended the law to state that observances would be held the first Thursday in May.