Thursday is the National Day of Prayer (NDP), and you know what that means: Yes, it’s time for the Religious Right to ramp up its policies of division and exclusion.
Most NDP events are coordinated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group closely aligned with the Religious Right. According to the Task Force’s website, the theme of this year’s event is “Pray for America – Unity.”
That’s an ironic theme. For starters, not everyone prays or chooses to engage in religious activities. Prayer and worship are obviously important to millions of Americans, but, when sponsored by the government, they tend to divide, not unify, our citizens. Many people feel strongly about their faith (or non-faith) and don’t want the government to take sides by appearing to endorse a certain mode of worship – yet the NDP does just that.
It isn’t just non-believers and non-Christians who get offended by NDP events. The Task Force’s statement of faith reflects a form of Christian fundamentalism so rigid and far to the right it excludes millions of Christians as well.
In fact, the Task Force has never been a force for unity. Its FAQ says bluntly, “[T]he efforts of the NDP Task Force are executed specifically in accordance with its Judeo-Christian beliefs.” Based on past events, it’s safe to say that the “Christian” part of that will be fundamentalist, and the “Judeo” part will be tiny to non-existent.
In past years, the Task Force has gone so far as to recommend that non-Christians not be allowed to speak at events. It’s impossible to reach unity when the NDP Task Force fosters policies of exclusion.
The Task Force is also guilty of promoting discord by spreading bad history. Its website would lead you to conclude that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were big fans of official prayer proclamations, which is simply not true.
Jefferson issued no prayer proclamations during his eight years in office and once observed, “I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its disciplines or its doctrines. … Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”
Under pressure from Congress, Madison issued prayer proclamations during the War of 1812 but later expressed great regret for having done it. In fact, Madison penned an essay sometime between 1820-30 in which he criticized official prayer proclamations. He listed several objections, among them: “They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”
Even the NDP’s origins are divisive. The event goes back to 1952 when legislation enacting the National Day of Prayer was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Harry Truman. Thus, the NDP’s origins don’t stretch back to the founding era but are yet another byproduct of the Red Scare and the Cold War-era ideological battle against “godless communism” – hardly a unifying period in our history.
In a country built on separation of religion and government and marked by exploding religious and philosophical pluralism, a government-backed National Day of Prayer is an offensive anachronism. Of course, people have the right to pray if they want – this Thursday or any other day. The government should stay out of it.
P.S. Last year, President Donald Trump used an NDP event at the White House to unveil an executive order that attempted to violate the integrity of houses of worship by luring them into partisan politics and allow widespread forms of religion-based discrimination. We don’t know what Trump might have in the works for this year, but be assured that we’ll be keeping a close eye on things.
(Image: Screenshot from C-SPAN)