It’s the first Thursday in May and you know what that means: by congressional decree, today is the official “National Day of Prayer.” If you forgot to send a card, better luck next year.
There were some complaints in recent years from various conservative activists and Fox News personalities that President Obama had tried to do away with the “holiday,” such as it is, but in reality that never happened. In fact, Obama, like all of his modern predecessors, has issued National Day of Prayer proclamations, and this week was no exception.
“All of us have the freedom to pray and exercise our faiths openly. Our laws protect these God-given liberties, and rightly so. Today and every day, prayers will be offered in houses of worship, at community gatherings, in our homes, and in neighborhoods all across our country. Let us give thanks for the freedom to practice our faith as we see fit, whether individually or in fellowship.
“On this day, let us remember in our thoughts and prayers all those affected by recent events, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, and the explosion in West, Texas. Let us pray for the police officers, firefighters, and other first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect their fellow Americans. Let us also pray for the safety of our brave men and women in uniform and their families who serve and sacrifice for our country. Let us come together to pray for peace and goodwill today and in the days ahead as we work to meet the great challenges of our time.”
Obama’s handling of the day is, however, very different from his immediate predecessor. For eight years, George W. Bush held a National Day of Prayer event in the East Room of the White House, organized by something called the National Day of Prayer Task Force, led by religious right activists.
In 2009, Obama politely told the NDP Task Force to find a private location for their events, leading the right to complain incessantly.
Of course, that leads to the obvious question of why the nation needs a National Day of Prayer in the first place.
As long time readers may recall, 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.
For what it’s worth, I’m still hard pressed to imagine why this is necessary. Indeed, show of hands: how many of you knew this “holiday” existed? How many knew it’s today?
For the faithful, every day is a day of prayer and official proclamations are unnecessary. For everyone else, 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.
If you’re thinking it’s none of the government’s business whether or not we pray, you and I are on the same page. My friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State have some related thoughts on the matter.
Update: A reader argued via Twitter than the National Day of Prayer has merit because of the “values the nation was founded on.” I’d note, in case anyone’s forgotten, that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison refused to issue prayer proclamations. I’d like to think they had some familiarity with the values the nation was founded on.