May 03, 2012

Is America a fundamentalist Christian nation where government and religion are merged?

Of course not. But if you stopped by the Cannon House Office Building here in Washington, D.C., today, you’d certainly think so.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force commandeered a large room there for the morning and turned it into a fundamentalist revival tent, replete with the usual Religious Right mix of faith and partisanship.

The Task Force, as you probably know, is run by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. The Dobsons organize events all around the country on the National Day of Prayer (NDP), and they limit speakers at the rallies to those who share their religious-political agenda.

It’s no accident that they chose as the Task Force’s honorary chairman this year California pastor David Jeremiah. Jeremiah is best known for attacking President Barack Obama as a “dangerous man” who is moving America “toward socialism and away from our historical moorings.”

The purpose of the Dobson campaign is threefold: to proselytize for their fundamentalist Christian worldview, to raise Religious Right political influence and to undercut as much as possible the separation of church and state.

The event at the congressional office building was no exception. I watched it on television, and it was the usual stew of fervent sectarian worship with more than a hint of partisanship. In addition to bringing in gospel singers and choirs, the Dobsons tried to recruit representatives from the military and the three branches of government. U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton came from the judiciary, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) stood in for the legislative branch and Rear Admiral Mike Parks of the Coast Guard represented the military.

To its credit, the Obama White House declined to send someone over. Mrs. Dobson was clearly irked at this snub, just as she’s annoyed that the Obama administration cancelled the NDP event held at the White House annually during the George W. Bush years.

To get even, Mrs. Dobson brought forward Obama critic Bishop Harry Jackson to stand in for the executive branch. Jackson is best known for his harsh attacks on marriage equality for gay people, and he often appears at Religious Right events.

Jackson’s remarks were predictable. He criticized the administration for refusing to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, the discriminatory federal legislation that bars federal recognition of state-approved civil marriages of gay people. Reflecting the Religious Right’s current meme, he also claimed that religious liberty “is being challenged” in our nation.

Jackson said Christians are a majority in America, but the Obama administration doesn’t operate with a “majority belief system.” Executive branch staff members, he complained, “don’t have a unified central core of belief.”

You got that right, bishop. In America, our “central core of belief” is not one particular faith, but freedom of conscience for all.    

Under the terms of a (patently unconstitutional) federal law, President Barack Obama is required to declare a national day of prayer each year on the first Thursday in May. He did so, but he noted in his remarks, “On this National Day of Prayer, we give thanks for our democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience.”

To pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience. That pretty much sums it up.

I wish President Obama would just tell Congress: “Sorry, Congress, the Constitution doesn’t give government the right to intervene in religious matters. Americans are perfectly capable of deciding on their own when – or whether –  they want to pray.  So, I’m going to pass on issuing an annual proclamation.”

That would be in keeping with the intent of our Founders. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison thought the president shouldn’t give Americans instructions about prayer.

But if the president is unwilling to do that, at least he has made his proclamation nonsectarian and avoided giving a platform to Religious Right forces that are up to no good. Good for him!