Wednesday, May 12, 2010

God, Life and Everything - National Day of Prayer

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Last Thursday was the National Day of Prayer, and boy was it a doozey. Not that anything happened on the day itself outside of the usual. But the controversies swirling around it made this supposed day of unity into anything but.

In case you missed it, three big fights have been raging. First, there has been a rumor going on for a long time that President Obama cancelled the day of prayer. Second, the Rev. Franklin Graham was uninvited from speaking at the Pentagon’s prayer service because of disparaging remarks he made about Islam. Finally, a federal judge ruled that the National Day of Prayer violates the constitution’s separation of church and state.

So, should we have this National Day of Prayer? If so, what kind of prayer?

A little history might help. Before 1952, there was no National Day of Prayer. True, three times before, presidents had called on the nation’s people to dedicate a day to "humiliation, fasting and prayer," but each was during a time of war, and the president asked people to pray for peace. They established nothing.

It was only in 1952 that President Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer should be declared each year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the “one nation under God,” was formally added to the Pledge of Allegiance just two years later.

In 1988, President Reagan established the first Thursday of May as the National Day of Prayer.

Originally, there was no particular ceremony or service attached to the National Day of Prayer. Each president was supposed to pick their own day for it (until 1988) and observe it in their own way, so long as they made the declaration. Most presidents have not participated in any prayer services on that day. Only Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush have held services. President Obama’s choice to keep his observance private is in keeping with tradition.

With that bit of history in hand, we return to the question: should we have the day of prayer – at least as a formal law?

I say “No.”

“But wait!” you say. “You’re a priest! How can you be against prayer!” The answer is, of course, I am not against prayer. Prayer is the very basis of my life. As the apostle Paul says, I seek to pray without ceasing. Which means that designating a day for it is unnecessary. It’s like establishing a National Day of Breathing.

More ominously, however, is that I always worry when politicians start throwing around religion. My experience is that this rarely has anything to do with faith and always has a lot to do with politics. Remember the “under God” part in the Pledge? When did it get added? During what is now known as the Red Scare. Same with the National Day of Prayer. Call me cynical, but those moves sound an awful lot like a government trying to convince people that “God is on our side.”

Such crassness is a perfect example of a violation of the third commandment, making wrongful use of the Lord’s name. Whether it’s unconstitutional or not is up to the courts, but when the government makes laws about prayer – whether telling us not to pray or to pray - there’s something wrong. (By the way, the government has never made a law telling us not to pray – only that the government can’t make us pray. I assure you, I know quite a few kids who pray in school).

That leaves us with just one other bit of controversy: Franklin Graham being uninvited by the Pentagon. Should they have withdrawn his invitation just because he says Islam is a religion of violence? Well, if the National Day of Prayer is supposed to include all people of faith, it would seem that inviting a religious leader who knowingly excludes other religions would be a bad idea. That looks way too much like saying, “Only our religion is approved by the government.”

So, in the end, I would say we don’t need this National Day of Prayer. What for? Interfaith organizations have similar things already. We people of faith pray or don’t pray already, depending on our own spiritual journeys. And if it was supposed to unite us, it has shown itself to be a monumental failure.

Perhaps the words of George Washington would be helpful to remember. In 1792 he wrote a letter to Edward Newenham in which he said: "Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.  Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by the difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be depreciated.  I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society."

Looks like his hope has yet to be realized.