Critiques of government-sponsored prayer days and other forms of ceremonial religion often come from non-religious people. They argue, quite rightly, that when government calls on its people to pray, the non-religious are excluded and even made to feel like lesser citizens.
But plenty of believers have problems with what is sometimes called “ceremonial deism” as well. They’ve pointed out that, from a spiritual perspective, it offers thin gruel; it’s a watered down, one-size-fits-all religious experience.
A recent column by Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood, both of whom are editors of Word & Way, an independent Baptist publication, provides a powerful reminder that many Christians are troubled by events like the recent National Day of Prayer (NDP).
“Our goal is to get Christians to take prayer seriously,” Kaylor and Underwood write. “We criticize the NDP because of the high value we place on prayer as a spiritual discipline that is foundational to our lives as followers of Jesus. For whatever good you might believe a presidential proclamation about prayer serves, it simply is not – and cannot be – the type of rich prayer experience that Christ demands from his followers.”
Kaylor and Underwood also assert that these “ceremonial” uses of religion by the state are exclusive and, despite their stated goal, don’t bring us together.
“If America is to live up to its founding creed of religious liberty for all then we cannot pretend that monotheistic prayer is unifying or an act our government should promote,” they argue. “Although the federal courts have not ruled the NDP unconstitutional, it doesn’t mean the event is religiously neutral. Every person who feels alienated from their country because they don’t fit within the ‘we’ that is assumed by these proclamations is a crack in the long cherished wall between church and state.”
Kaylor and Underwood’s insightful article, which also takes a frank look at the political origins of the National Day of Prayer, challenges all of us – believer and non-believer alike – to ask if this event serves any meaningful purpose for our nation today and, indeed, to wonder if it ever did. Their piece is definitely worth some of your time today.