President George W. Bush is using tomorrow's National Day of Prayer to help promote the Religious Right agenda and further cement his ties with religious conservatives, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has charged.
"George W. Bush is president of all the people," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "He should not use his office to promote a narrow religious agenda. He holds the office of president, not national pastor."
In 1952 Congress passed a federal law requiring an annual observance of a national day of prayer. In 1988, at the behest of the Religious Right, the date of the event was officially set by Congress as the first Thursday in May.
Since then, control of the observance, intended to be broadly ecumenical, has been effectively taken over by the Religious Right. The National Day of Prayer Task Force, a nonprofit private group headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right broadcaster James Dobson, coordinates virtually all of the prayer day events in Washington, D.C., and around the country.
The NDP Task Force operates from the headquarters of Dobson's Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo. As expected, the Task Force's events reflect a fundamentalist Christian view of the world and advance the claim that America is a Christian nation.
Despite this narrow religious approach, President Bush is actively assisting the Dobson crusade. According to a May 2 Focus on the Family fax newsletter, White House liaison Tim Goeglin says NDP events in Washington, D.C., will be hosted by Bush.
In his April 30 NDP proclamation Bush adopted the Task Force theme of "One Nation Under God" as his own. He even quoted from a special prayer written for the Task Force by evangelist Billy Graham.
The Bush actions have won the president support from James Dobson, an influential figure in the Religious Right whose broadcasting empire has an annual budget of over $120 million and millions of followers.
According to World magazine, an evangelical publication, Dobson said he is "very encouraged" by the Bush administration's early record, particularly the president's assistance to Dobson's wife Shirley on the prayer day activities.
Americans United's Lynn said the situation is unfortunate.
"Americans don't need the president and Congress telling us when to pray," he said. "And we certainly don't need the White House using its bully pulpit to advance the Religious Right's radical gameplan."
Lynn noted that Dobson's religious veneer masks an extreme political agenda. His ministry assails church-state separation, public schools, feminists, gay people and even the concept of tolerance. Focus on the Family has even launched attacks on the Girl Scouts for alleged liberalism.
Lynn also pointed out that key Founders such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson thought presidential prayer day proclamations were violations of the constitutional separation of church and state.
Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," said such proclamations are inappropriate. "They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion," Madison wrote in a document referred to as the "Detached Memoranda."
Jefferson, a leading visionary on religious liberty, made a similar argument, writing to the Rev. Samuel Miller in 1808, "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."
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.