The first Thursday in May, by congressional mandate, is set aside as the official “National Day of Prayer,” which means today is the big day. For a while, some in conservative media argued President Obama rejected the “holiday,” but as he’s done every year since taking office, Obama issued his National Day of Prayer proclamation yesterday.
And, in keeping with recent tradition, the religious right continues to see the prayer day as an extension of its movement, to be used to advance its concerns. Right Wing Watch noted today:
Today is the annual National Day of Prayer, which is overseen by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right icon James Dobson. So naturally, James was given 10 minutes this morning to warn attendees at the official event in Washington, D.C. of the dire implications for this nation should the Supreme Court legalize gay marriage.Echoing his belief that such a ruling could lead to civil war, Dobson warned that legalizing gay marriage would undermine and weaken the family and tear this nation apart because “it will divide us further and the implications of it are breathtaking.”
As longtime readers may recall, during the eight years of the Bush/Cheney era, the far-right National Day of Prayer Task Force held annual events in the East Room of the White House. In 2009, President Obama politely told the NDP Task Force it would need to find a new, private venue to host prayer day events.
The rhetoric from the Dobsons this morning helps serves as a reminder why Obama showed these folks the door.
Of course, all of this leads to the obvious question of why the nation needs a National Day of Prayer in the first place.
As we discussed last year at this time, those who assume this is a relic of the colonial era are mistaken. In the early 1950s, when lawmakers were adding “under God” to the Pledge and changing all American money to include the phrase “In God We Trust,” Congress created an official annual Prayer Day for the nation. Congress, under pressure from the religious right, changed the law in 1988 to set the National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May.
Which, of course, leads us to today.
That said, I’ve never fully understood why the day exists. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be any great public demand for the occasion. Show of hands: how many of you knew today was the National Day of Prayer? How many of you plan to honor the occasion in some specific way?
What’s more, for the faithful, every day is a day of prayer, making official government proclamations unnecessary. And for Americans who aren’t religious, there’s no reason a secular government based on a secular Constitution needs to set aside one day a year in which a presidential proclamation says prayer is worthwhile.
The right occasionally likes to talk about “founding principles” and “restoring” traditional American norms, but the fact remains that Thomas Jefferson refused to issue prayer proclamations during his presidency. James Madison issued one during the War of 1812, but he later said he regretted it.
So why keep this going now? My old pals at Americans United for Separation of Church and State have more on the topic today.