Apr 25, 2008

Intolerant Religious Right groups are dominating observance of the National Day of Prayer and government officials should refuse to lend them support, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer scheduled for May 1 this year has been largely hijacked by the Religious Right and is being used as an opportunity to promote a far-right religious-political agenda.

“In many cases, this event is more about politics than prayer,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It’s just another excuse for the Religious Right to attack church-state separation.”

Many events around the country this year are being coordinated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a Colorado Springs-based Religious Right organization run by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family Chairman James C. Dobson.

The NDP Task Force’s Web site claims it is the “National Day of Prayer Official Web Site,” but, in fact, the group has no official status. The Task Force states that its purposes is to “Foster unity within the Christian Church” and “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage.” Non-Christians are usually prohibited from leading or speaking at NDP Task Force events.

The Dobsons require volunteer prayer coordinators to sign a fundamentalist statement of faith that declares that “the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of The Living God” and that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation.”

In addition, the NDP Task Force Web site promotes “Drive-Thru History,” a home-school curriculum produced by pseudo-historian David Barton that promotes the idea that America was founded to be a “Christian nation.”

Despite its sectarian character, the NDP Task Force often draws support from elected officials. The Dobsons annually visit the White House for its NDP event, and public officials attend NDP Task Force events held at the U.S. Capitol.

This year, President George W. Bush’s official National Day of Prayer proclamation used the same theme as the Dobsons’ Task Force “Prayer! America’s Strength & Shield.” A large number of governors have also issued proclamations adopting the NDP Task Force’s theme.

“The National Day of Prayer Task Force doesn’t even pretend to acknowledge religious tolerance or our country’s great diversity,” Lynn said. “It’s time for the government to stop working with this group.”

Lynn noted that leading Founders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed government proclamations of days of prayer. They believed such events constitute improper government intrusion into religious matters.

Wrote Jefferson, in a Jan. 23, 1808, letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller, “I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them.

“Fasting & prayer are religious exercises,” observed Jefferson. “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.”

Madison, in his “Detached Memoranda,” warned that governmental religious proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.” He warned that there would always be a tendency “to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect” and that partisan political considerations would be likely to come into play.

“The last & not the least objection,” observed Madison, “is the liability of the practice to a subserviency to political views; to the scandal of religion, as well as the increase of party animosities.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.