Today is the National Day of Prayer (NDP), an annual event established by federal law. A number of events wll be held around the country.
Americans United has no problem with people voluntarily coming together for prayer. It’s the “established by federal law” part that we can’t get behind. In our view, it’s never the business of government to promote, encourage or sponsor any kind of religious worship.
Obviously, the government has no power to make anyone pray on this day or any other, but by creating the NDP, the government is sending a not-so-subtle message: It thinks prayer is a good thing. Through the NDP, the government prods and provokes and says that prayer is something you ought to do – maybe it’s even something that real Americans do, and if you choose not to, you’re somehow a lesser citizen. The state has no right to send a message like that – whether we pray, how we pray, where we pray is none of the government’s business.
Americans United has opposed the NDP, government-backed prayer proclamations and other forms of “civil religion” in the past, and every time we do, we hear from followers of the Religious Right about it. They make several arguments, none of which stand up to scrutiny.
Let’s look at a few:
What’s the big deal? It’s just ceremonial! The fact that the NDP is often described as “just ceremonial” is the big deal. For truly devout people, prayer is a communication with the transcendent, the most awesome power in the universe. To believers, prayer means something. It’s too important to be used as a prop at a government ceremony.
We’ve had these prayer days for a long time. It’s traditional. Yes, official, government-backed prayer days have around for a long time. But much has changed since the 18th century in America, and it’s time we took a new look at old practices. Just because we’ve been doing something for a long time doesn’t mean we should keep it up. (Like, say, taxpayer-funded chaplains in Congress.)
And, as I noted on Monday, not all of our founders were on board with official prayer days. Thomas Jefferson refused to issue such proclamations, and James Madison did so under pressure from Congress but later said he wished he hadn’t. Andrew Jackson was also not a fan.
We can find a prayer everyone will be happy with. That’s not going to happen. There’s no prayer that non-believers will rally around, and many devout Christians believe that “non-sectarian” prayer is a misnomer. Some people in this country have been chasing the chimera of “a prayer everyone will love” for a long time. They should give up the quest because that prayer doesn’t exist.
You’re trying to take away our religious freedom. Nope, just the opposite. Americans are free to gather and pray any day of the year. They don’t need an arm of government to designate a special day for it, and they certainly don’t need state officials prodding them to engage in religious activities by sponsoring prayer events. When the state meddles in what ought to be private religious decisions in a heavy-handed way, it’s taking sides in matters of theology. Someone’s view wins, and someone else’s view loses. We’re all less free when that happens.
Americans United has produced some great graphics highlighting the problems with the National Day of Prayer. We'll be posting them today on our Twitter feed, Facebook page and Instagram page. Please feel free to share them far and wide!