National Day Of Prayer: Confusing Church And State

Dobsons, Religious Right Use Prayer Day To Advance Religious Right Political Agenda

In 1952 Congress enacted a federal law establishing an annual National Day of Prayer. In 1988, the law was amended to set the date as the first Thursday of each May. The observance, originally intended as a unifying event for the nation, has taken on a decidedly sectarian character in recent years.

Some observers charge that the National Day of Prayer (NDP) has been effectively taken over by Religious Right groups and is being used to oppose church-state separation and promote a narrow political agenda. This year's event, on Thursday, May 7, seems to follow that pattern.

Americans United's View

"The National Day of Prayer has been hijacked by Religious Right groups with an extremist political agenda," says the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "All Americans should be wary of the radical agenda these groups are pushing."

Dobsons Take Charge

The National Day of Prayer Task Force is chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, a radio psychologist and Religious Right powerhouse who heads Focus on the Family, a $114-million-a-year empire based in Colorado Springs. Mrs. Dobson runs the privately organized task force out of FOF's office, although she insists the two are not officially related.

James Dobson has made headlines in recent weeks by announcing a high-profile campaign against the GOP congressional leadership for failing to deliver on the Religious Right's political agenda. Combining religion and politics, the FOF president is in Washington, D.C., this week to take part in the National Day of Prayer events and to lobby Republican leaders.

NDP Resource Kit: Bad History, Bad Law

Every year the NDP Task Force issues a resource kit designed to help local activists promote the event. The kits are usually studded with incorrect historical information, inaccurate analysis of Supreme Court rulings on church and state and misleading advice on the religious activity that may occur in public schools.

This year's kit, for example, gives an incomplete description of Thomas Jefferson's use of the phrase "separation of church and state." It goes on to quote the Supreme Court out of context in its seminal 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, in which the court upheld a strict interpretation of the separation concept. These inaccuracies are intentional, designed to buttress the Religious Right's view that the First Amendment prohibits only a nationally established church. In fact, historical evidence shows that the framers intended for separation of church and state to be much broader.

Elsewhere, the kit contains a bogus quote from James Madison and recommends books by "Christian nation" advocates that have been shown to be full of errors and misinterpretations of history.

The section of the resource kit dealing with NDP activities in schools is vague. Some of the suggestions, if undertaken in public schools, would certainly spark lawsuits. While the kit notes that some of its suggestions are more appropriate for private schools, it does not differentiate between the two in the list. The kit states that, "All ideas involving public schools must be both student-initiated and voluntary," implying that meeting these two criteria alone would make the activities legal.

The kit also refers readers to a book by John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, a Religious Right group. This is hardly an objective source.

For Christians And Jews Only

Lastly, in three separate places the NDP kit stresses that the National Day of Prayer Task Force was created to promote the NDP as a "Judeo-Christian" celebration and that event organizers have no obligation to permit other faiths to take part. In fact, it discourages participation by groups outside of Christianity and Judaism.

It should be noted, that the NDP Task Force's use of the term "Judeo" is little more than window dressing. In fact, Task Force materials reflect fundamentalist Christian theology and specifically recommend a fundamentalist cast to the day's events. In a section titled "How to Pray for People of Influence," the Task Force recommends praying for public officials in a manner that will help them "be drawn, if unsaved, to a saving encounter with Christ" and that they "be presented with the Gospel and loving Christian witness."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.