Wednesday, April 28, 2010

National Daze of Prayer

We have dropped our pilot, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are sailing blindly on without divine chart or compass, hoping somehow to find our desired haven. We have certain leaders who are rank materialists; they do not recognize God nor care for Him; they spend their time in one round of parties after another. The Capital City of our Nation can have a great spiritual awakening, thousands coming to Jesus Christ, but certain leaders have not lifted an eyebrow, nor raised a finger, nor showed the slightest bit of concern. Ladies and gentlemen, I warn you, if this state of affairs continues, the end of the course is national shipwreck and ruin.
Billy Graham, calling for a National Day of Prayer in Washington DC in 1952

The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.
Law passed by Congress and signed by Ronald Reagan on May 9, 1988

And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, who's Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?
Barack Obama, June 28, 2006, Call To Renewal Speech

I think [Obama's] deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology...dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.
James Dobson on Barack Obama, June 24, 2008

Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world.
George W. Bush, August 2000

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 7, 2009, as a National Day of Prayer. I call upon Americans to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings and to ask for God's continued guidance, grace, and protection for this land that we love.
Barack Obama

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus Christ (Matthew 6:6)

Every year in the US since Reagan's proclamation in 1988, the Shirley Dobson led National Day of Prayer Task Force organizes 30-40,000 prayer gatherings on the first Thursday of May that are "specifically limited to the Judeo-Christian heritage and those who share that conviction as expressed in the Lausanne Covenant." Lausanne was a 1974 global evangelism conference that formed a manifesto signed by "believers" committed to such statements as "both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice" and "We also reject as derogatory to Christ and the gospel every kind of syncretism and dialogue which implies that Christ speaks equally through all religions and ideologies." The Task Force is a strategic off shoot of the National Day of Prayer, advocated by the likes of Dobson and Campus Crusade for Christ's Vonette Bright and signed into law by Congress and Reagan.

Two weeks ago federal judge Barbara Crabb, in a case called Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama , ruled against The National Day of Prayer:

...religious expression by the government that is inspirational and comforting
to a believer may seem exclusionary or even threatening to someone who does not share
those beliefs. This is not simply a matter of being “too sensitive” or wanting to suppress the religious expression of others. is a consequence of the unique danger that religious conduct by the government poses for creating “in” groups and “out” groups...

Members of the bipartisan Congressional Prayer caucus have responded with fury. My own Congressional representative, Gary Miller, posted this statement on his website:

The federal judge’s decision to rule a simple national recognition of prayer as unconstitutional undermines the values of religious freedom that America was founded upon and misinterprets the Constitution. I, along with the other Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, will continue to fight this decision.

And this from Shirley Dobson:

This is the time, the very hour, when we must unite our voices against this outrageous and far-reaching move to take away the religious liberties that were so hard won by our Founding Fathers. Let’s not let this happen on our watch!

EasyYolk has a problem with calling The National Day of Prayer "a simple national recognition of prayer." It is essentially a conservative Evangelical movement determined to baptize the United States into a very particular brand of Christianity. Many Evangelical leaders use this day as a platform for their brand of faith and politics. They firmly echo Billy Graham's urging to put their interpretation of Jesus back in America's pilot seat in order to ensure God's blessing on the US. Many on the right call Judge Crabb's decision a form of "anti-religion" or "anti-prayer." However, Crabb goes out of her way to affirm prayer's role in our society:

It bears emphasizing that a conclusion that the establishment clause prohibits the government from endorsing a religious exercise is not a judgment on the value of prayer or the millions of Americans who believe in its power. No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer. In the best of times, people may pray as a way of expressing joy and thanks; during times of grief, many find that prayer provides comfort. Others may pray to give praise, seek forgiveness, ask for guidance or find the truth.

I understand that many may disagree with that conclusion and some may even view
it as a criticism of prayer or those who pray. That is unfortunate. A determination that the government may not endorse a religious message is not a determination that the message itself is harmful, unimportant or undeserving of dissemination...The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy.

When dealing with the tension of the establishment and free exercise clauses of 1st Amendment, empathy is our most coveted weapon. What, we must ask, must it be like to be a marginalized religious group in a country that has a National Day of Prayer supported by a Task Force that organizes at least 30,000 gatherings endorsing a very particular brand of Christian faith? Atheists, Jews, Agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists and many denominations within the Christian tradition, as well as the growing number of "unaffliated" (16% of the population) in the US are naturally ostracized from a National Day of Prayer that is dominated by Evangelical churches and organizations. Leaders like Miller and Dobson, it should be noted, are calling for a top-down approach, demanding a "religious liberty" that guarantees the President will officially set aside a day for our Nation to call upon God. How exactly are we in need of this kind of "liberty" when any faith leader can call his or her community to a day of prayer? Why do we need an National Day of Prayer proclaimed by the President, especially when so many American citizens do not pray?

The real power of pray comes from individuals and faith communities who gather in their "closets" and pray earnestly and fervently to God. Ironically, Miller and Dobson are placing themselves under a precarious "yolk," by exhorting the federal courts to ensure an official day of prayer that only the President of the US can officially mandate that the nation prays to God. There's an inherent prayer hierarchy in this rationale: God--Jesus--The President of the US--Dobson--the-rest-of-us. These same leaders endorse political views that deify "getting the government out of our lives." The free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution already guarantees us the right to organize a prayer movement without the federal government officially recognizing it. We don't need an official day to endorse it.

Since the days of Constantine in the 4th century, however, Christians have become intoxicated with political power. "Witness" has become equated with official endorsement of a "civil religion." The irony is that throughout the Gospels Jesus announced the "reign of God" which subverted the reign of Caesar. When Jesus looked Pilate in the eye and said "My kingdom is not from this world" (John 18:36a) he qualified how his disciples were different: "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over..." (John 18:36b). During his ministry Jesus' teachings and lifestyle endorsed a kind of political practice that countered the Jewish and Roman coalition that governed Palestine: "you have heard it said, but I say to you" (Matthew 5:21,27,33,38,43). Why else do you think he was executed by this very coalition? Since Constantine, however, Caesar and God became infused in order to unify nations under the flag and the cross in order to defend themselves against the enemies (the Cold War is the real context of Graham's 1952 and Reagan's 1988 proclamations).

Real faith, real prayer is never officially endorsed by governments. The United States of America is not (and never was) the "new Israel" or "the city on a hill." Jesus gave that charge to his disciple community and the churches who pledged allegiance to his way after his crucifixion and resurrection. These churches were political and economic alternatives to the Roman Empire. They shared wealth, fed the poor and homeless, served the marginalized, forgave each other, embraced humility and prayed behind closed doors for the wisdom, discernment and strength to live Jesus' way.

When Evangelical leaders allude to the Christian "heritage" of the US, they mask the inherent diversity of the American Body of Christ and the ways that dominant Christianity has dominated other brands of Christianity and various faith narratives. President Obama should support Judge Crabb's decision...but he won't because he is caving to the political power of Evangelical groups that erroneously equate the National Day of Prayer with "religious liberty" and to the supermajority of Americans who have become convinced that God will protect their country only when they have special holidays that acknowledge Him.
Note: the above picture of Obama was the subject of a recently forwarded email that claimed Obama was praying in a mosque on the grounds of the White House. The photo was actually taken outside a mosque in Istanbul in April 2009. He was taking off his shoes, per custom, before a tour. The email also claimed:


Obama is actually endorsing, not canceling, the National Day of Prayer which will go on despite the federal judge's recent opinion (Judge Crabb allowed the National Day of Prayer to continue until appeals are exhausted).

--Theological Autopilot


  1. [spotted this on the net - Rachel]

    The ObaMAD Legend

    Here's a suggested book title for anyone who will someday write about the hopefully short-lived, Obamaniac dictatorship:

    "Double-Crossers, Cross-Dressers & Cross-Bashers"

    (For more Obamania, Yahoo "Obama Avoids Bible Verses," "Obama Supports Public Depravity" and "David Letterman's Hate, Etc.")

  2. Great post, Easy Yolk. So, I've been wondering, I'm sure we can all agree that the church can do more praying, not that God's action is merely limited to our prayer, but their appears to be biblical evidence that God does act when his people pray.

    But what can the church be praying for, especially in relationship to the government?

  3. Yes, let the church be the political body that represents the kingdom of God throughout prayer and action! Let's pray for peace in Israel-Palestine-Iraq-Afghanistan-Pakistan-and-the-rest-of-the-world, justice, equality, protection for Obama and our political leaders and their families, a more life-giving humanity (in the womb, against the bomb and in the slum) and for the wisdom/discernment/empowerment of local church communities that dare to be an alternative model, conscience and servant to the wider world.