A federal district court judge has struck down the Congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Hallelujah. And about time.
This was nothing more or less than a gimmick ginned up by holier-than-thou politicians, and I’ve thought this for a long time. On April 27, 1996, back when I was covering religion for the N&R, I wrote the following column (and got surprisingly little heat for it). Unlike a lot of what I have written over the years, I think it has held up well:
The 45th annual observance of the National Day of Prayer is Thursday. The event will be marked in all 50 states. Some 3,000 organizers are setting up more than 10,000 local and regional observances. In the ultimate indicator of mainstream acceptance, the event is marked on Hallmark calendars for the second straight year.
The National Day of Prayer, organizers say, is a day to be used as a time for reflection, prayer and meditation about our government, people and the problems confronting the country. It is an acknowledgment of a cultural tradition dating back to the founding of America, they say.
Here’s a suggestion: Let’s ignore it. It’s redundant, and for Christians, at least, the Gospel of Matthew suggests that it might not be appropriate.
It’s redundant because most of us already pray every day.
A December 1993 Gallup nationwide poll for Life magazine, whose figures are touted by the National Day of Prayer ‘s own organizing committee, shows that 72 percent of Americans pray daily or more often. Another 9 percent pray several times a week.
According to Gallup, every day is already a national day of prayer . Sure, more prayer couldn’t hurt, but to call for a day of prayer implies that we aren’t already praying every day.
Then there’s the Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus tells his disciples and the multitudes, “Again, when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in synagogue and at the street corners, for everyone to see them. I tell you this: They have their reward already. But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place; and your Father who sees what is secret will reward you.”
The National Day of Prayer , with its emphasis on public prayer (prayer in public places led, in many cases, by public officials and sponsored by a federal law) seems contrary to what Jesus commanded. Its organizing committee revels in the fact that there will be public prayer gatherings in every state capital and a daylong observance in one of the congressional office buildings.
At least in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed April 30 as a day of “National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer,” he suggested that people could gather at their places of worship or in their homes, rather than in the halls of Congress.
The blunt truth is that God gets votes, and that’s why Congress enacted a federal law in 1952 creating a National Day of Prayer.
If Congress really valued prayer, its individual members would be in their respective closets praying, not sitting out where C-Span can see them and talking about praying.
Prayer is a uniquely powerful and uniquely personal experience, and holding a government-sponsored group prayer session risks weakening and cheapening that experience.
So if you’re going to observe the National Day of Prayer this Thursday, observe it this way: Retreat to your closet, shut the door behind you, and pray.
Or, better yet, visit a sick or shut-in individual and, if he’s agreeable, pray with and for him. Just the two of you.
Let the 10,000 venues for these national observances be devoid of people, and let the only sounds there be the whistle of the wind and the still, small voice of God.
Fourteen years on, I’ve got nothing to add.