Today is the National Day of Prayer (NDP). Elsewhere on Americans United's Web site, you can read a press release that gives our opinion of this day. (We don't think much of it. We have nothing against prayer but believe it's not the business of government to tell people when, how and where to do it.)
In previous years, we've used the NDP to remind Americans of how two stalwarts of religious liberty – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – opposed official prayer proclamations. Rather than rehash that again, this year we'll offer something a little different.
The year is 1832. A cholera epidemic is sweeping through the United States. At that time, there was no reliable treatment against the dreaded disease. Congress, in its wisdom, decided to appeal for divine intervention. A day of fasting, humiliation and prayer was proposed. President Andrew Jackson was skeptical. Asked if he would issue such a proclamation, Jackson said no.
"I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president; and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government," Jackson wrote in a letter to a religious group.
Prodded by Sen. Henry Clay, the Senate passed the proclamation anyway. But in the House of Representatives, the measure ran into a roadblock when an unsung hero of religious liberty with the unlikely name of Gulian C. Verplanck stepped up to the speaker's podium on July 9.
Verplanck's address was very powerful, marshalling several arguments. In a polite and formal tone, he explained exactly why government-sponsored prayer is offensive.
"[I]t seems to me clear that whenever Congress or any other political body in this country meddles in affairs of religion, they must run counter more or less to the spirit of our free institutions, securing equal religious rights," Verplanck asserted. "In this land, where every man's faith is protected, and no man's faith is preferred, even a resolution or a proclamation for a fast from the civil authority may offend the consciences or wound the feelings of some or the other of our citizens."
Verplanck was qualified to make that assessment. Before serving in Congress, he was a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. His colleagues must have been swayed by his powerful rhetoric: The proclamation died in the House.
Prayer is important to many Americans. Those Americans who choose to pray have demonstrated that they are capable of determining for themselves when to pray, how to pray and who to pray to. If Americans need assistance with these matters, they know they can turn to any number of religious leaders, not the president, a governor or a member of Congress.
The National Day of Prayer offends because it promotes the erroneous idea that there can be such a thing as government-promoted faith. Furthering the insult, aggressive Religious Right groups have taken over the day. They exclude anyone who is not a fundamentalist Christian and use the NDP to promote a bogus "Christian nation" view of history.
Verplanck would know why that is wrong. We could use some of his wisdom today.