Tomorrow is the National Day of Prayer (NDP), an annual event that is, to speak frankly, annoying to many of us who support the separation of church and state.
This year’s National Day of Prayer may have the added spectacle of President Donald J. Trump signing a so-called “religious freedom” executive order that is actually a betrayal of this fundamental American value. Religion should never be an excuse to discriminate, yet that’s just what this rumored order is designed to do. The sweeping order is aimed at LGBTQ people and women, but would also put people of minority faiths, non-theists and almost anyone else at risk of harm. A draft of this executive order was leaked in February and it was shocking in scope; the one Trump might sign tomorrow is reportedly just as bad. But we still have a chance to stop it: take action and urge the president not to sign this order.
Aside from Trump potentially using the day as a bully pulpit to advance discrimination, Americans United has a lot of problems with the entire notion of National Day of Prayer, which was established by an act of Congress in 1952 and codified as the first Thursday in May in 1988. Chiefly, government has no business telling us when, how, where or even if we ought to pray.
But I’m especially concerned because the NDP Task Force is a font for bad history. The task force is a private group that organizes NDP events around the country. Formerly headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, it’s now run by Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the famous evangelist Billy Graham.
As I was browsing the NDP Task Force’s website, I was surprised to see a quote from Thomas Jefferson. It reads, “Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
I recognized those lines. They come from a letter Jefferson wrote on Jan. 23, 1808, to the Rev. Samuel Miller. The thing is, Jefferson wrote the letter to explain why, as president, he refused to issue official prayer proclamations! The Task Force quotes Jefferson to make it sound like he’s all for prayer days when in fact he believed the exact opposite.
The Task Force has wrenched the quote from context – and it managed to mangle the quote a bit in the process. This passage (which retains original spelling and punctuation) gives an accurate understanding of Jefferson’s views: “I consider the government of the U S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. … I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & 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, & 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.” (You can read the entire letter here.)
Jefferson is saying that it’s a mistake for the government to advise people to pray. That job is best left in the hands of religious groups, and decisions about when, where and how to pray are best left to the people. Jefferson would not have supported the NDP.
Americans have the freedom to pray when, how and if they choose - they don't need a government proclamation.
The Task Force’s website contains other errors, mostly of omission. It reports that President James Madison issued prayer proclamations during the War of 1812 but doesn’t go on to say that Madison later concluded that his actions had been unconstitutional.
Likewise, the Task Force notes that in 1832, some members of Congress sought a “Day of Public Humiliation, Prayer and Fasting” to respond to an outbreak of cholera. They don’t bother to point out that a member of the House, Rep. Gulian C. Verplanck, a New York Democrat, put a stop to it.
“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 asserted. (Amen, brother!)
Finally, the NDP Task Force likes to pretend that this day is for everyone, but it obviously excludes non-believers and many believers as well. On its website, the Task Force points out that local events reflect “its Judeo-Christian beliefs.”
They add “Judeo” but don’t really mean it. The NDP promotes fundamentalist Christianity. If you doubt that, take a look at this “National Prayer” penned by Lotz that’s rife with offensive Religious Right political claptrap.
To sum up, the National Day of Prayer promotes bad history, offends the separation of church and state, divides our people along religious lines and has become a vehicle for the Religious Right to promote distasteful ideas.
Remind me again why we do this?