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The annual National Day of Prayer

Why in the world does the federal government set aside an official prayer day by congressional decree?
Religious activists lead a prayer vigil outside the Supreme Court on March 25, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Religious activists lead a prayer vigil outside the Supreme Court on March 25, 2012 in Washington, DC.
As long-time readers may recall, the first Thursday in May, which is today, has been set aside by congressional decree to serve as the official "National Day of Prayer."
In recent years, some media conservatives have argued that President Obama either opposes or has tried to eliminate the "holiday," but the concerns are imaginary. This president, like all modern presidents, has issued annual National Day of Prayer proclamations, and the latest came this morning.

"One of our Nation's great strengths is the freedom we hold dear, including the freedom to exercise our faiths freely. For many Americans, prayer is an essential act of worship and a daily discipline. "Today and every day, prayers will be said for comfort for those who mourn, healing for those who are sick, protection for those who are in harm's way, and strength for those who lead. Today and every day, forgiveness and reconciliation will be sought through prayer. Across our country, Americans give thanks for our many blessings, including the freedom to pray as our consciences dictate. "As we give thanks for our liberties, we must never forget those around the world, including Americans, who are being held or persecuted because of their convictions. Let us remember all prisoners of conscience today, whatever their faiths or beliefs and wherever they are held. Let us continue to take every action within our power to secure their release. And let us carry forward our Nation's tradition of religious liberty, which protects Americans' rights to pray and to practice our faiths as we see fit."

As we've discussed before, Obama's handling of the day is quite 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.
Of course, that leads to the obvious question of why the nation needs a National Day of Prayer in the first place.
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.
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 formal 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 and James Madison refused to issue prayer proclamations during their presidencies. I'd like to think they had some familiarity with the values on which the nation was founded.
Correction: Madison issued a prayer proclamation during the War on 1812, but later said he regretted it. My friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State have more on the prayer-day history here.