National Day of Prayer is national day of “snare?”

PIALast Thursday, May 2, 2013, I participated in a National Day of Prayer observance for the first time as a pastor. While I happen to like the ideal implied in the National Day of Prayer, a simple call for people to “turn to God,” I am frustrated by the fact it took an act of Congress in 1952 to make it up. So, we religious believers take a cue to set apart a special day for prayer from Congress? In light of appeals to religious liberty, guaranteed by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, I find following Congress’ lead on this ironic since the same First Amendment says in the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …” In the simple and persuasive arguments of many experts, much more well-versed in Constitutional law than I am, that’s exactly what Congress did in 36 U.S.C. § 119, establish a religious practice: “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.” In 2010 federal judge Barbara Crabb ruled the law unconstitutional, but a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit ruled the plaintiff, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, did not have standing, not exactly a secure victory for the law’s constitutionality. The panel said, “Hurt feelings differ from legal injury.”

My gut tells me court battles over the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer may hinge on that three-letter word “may,” which contains a lot of wiggle room for religious freedom over-against the apparent establishment of religious practice of 36 U.S.C. § 119. The legal gulf that exists between “may” and “shall” is a distinction we United Methodists know well because our Book of Discipline frequently uses the the words “may” and “shall,” which carry entirely different weight within our church law.

The interesting wrinkle in our local observance of the National Day of Prayer in Plainfield was that our gathering was moved from the flagpole by Village Hall to a church because Liberty Counsel sued Plainfield in November 2012 for religious viewpoint discrimination. I believe Plainfield sought settlement out of court, but now the damages have been ramped up by Liberty Counsel (full text of lawsuit here).

Where should the Christian church be in the midst of these issues involving religious liberty? The separation of church and state? The ideals of religious pluralism?

What does the National Day of Prayer compel the church to do?

Thoughts for the itinerant church:

Move out? Be compelled and to compel other Christians to move outside the walls of church buildings to pray on the street corners and in the public square, regardless of what lawsuits may come? And regardless what politicians decide to do?

Move on? Get over the fact that the U.S. and its jurisprudence does enshrine a wall of separation between governments–federal to local–and church/religious institutions? Give up on trying to re-colonize American culture to some kind of idyllic Christian past?

Move over? Make room for everyone else to express their religious beliefs–atheists to Zoroastrians–and, perhaps, to even join them in new, creative ways of learning about each other and forging common ground in the midst of our disagreements?

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3 Comments on “National Day of Prayer is national day of “snare?”

  1. When John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was no longer allowed to preach in the Anglican churches to whose priesthood he had been ordained, he began preaching in the open air, wherever he could assemble an audience. The Liberty Council’s legal action against Plainfield seems to me to have been more about trying to assert their own power than it was about any hindrance of “free speech.” They could have, as you noted, stood out on the street corner and spoken and taught exactly what they would have in the village hall without limitation, just like Wesley. Beyond that, were there no churches in the community that would have gladly hosted the event they wanted to offer? If not, then it seems to me they were more like unwelcome interlopers who intentionally sought to create a situation in which they could appear “the hero fighting for religious freedom” while demonizing the officials of a community as being “anti-Christian.”
    Beyond that, Congress in 1952 was reacting to the fact that the Soviet Union was our major foe, and they were Communist/atheist, and Congress wanted to assert that the United States was religious and God-fearing. To keep from being thought “soft on Communism”, Harry Truman signed a proclamation of a National Day of Prayer that supported Congress’s actions in 36 U.S.C. §119. Dwight Eisenhower was prevailed upon both in the Presbyterian Church in which he was baptized (as an adult) and by various American citizens, including powerful religious organizations of the day, such as the Knights of Columbus, to sign a bill of Congress in 1954 adding “under God” officially to the Pledge of Allegiance, following efforts in that direction that had begun following WWII to contrast the US with the “godless Communism” of the USSR. However, in all this, when reading a narrative of the process, I could not help thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s response to the man who once asked him whether God was on the side of the Union. He said, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
    Events such as the one proposed by the Liberty Counsel are not simply “educational events” that have no intentional religious content. They are attempts to get the nation to be “on God’s side” and are, therefore, religious activities. To suggest they are not is simply disingenuous and not worthy of an organization that claims to represent the Truth of God. While I agree that it is important for all of us who are believers both to be “on God’s side” and to encourage/persuade/convert others to be so, I believe there are plenty of places for us to use to do so other than village halls and other government properties; and it is incumbent upon us to be good citizens who do not seek to assert our power over others who may not share our religious viewpoint or aims just because we may be in the majority. We need to make such a powerful case for our position through the things we say and the ways we act towards others that the truth of our claims, being made manifest thereby, draw others to the Lord we serve. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12.32).

  2. Who can complain about praying? Can it hurt anyone?
    Well, I can say that when any one particular group or leadership ‘is allowed to take over’ the celebration of praying, it can become divisive. In Raleigh, NC, we have experienced being shut out of a regular participation when the local Triangle Interfaith Alliance was told that prayers from those of a faith other than Christian were not welcome to offer a public prayer alongside Christians who were leading the prayer service.
    If one is praying for world peace, for example, wouldn’t we want to welcome the prayers of Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Sai Babists, Ba’hai’s, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and any other people of good will?

    • Yes, William, I think you’re right. “We” should welcome people of all faiths to pray “with us” on a day like the National Day of Prayer, though I’m always wary of the dominance of Christians “including” everyone “else.” Christians should look for opportunities to be the guests of others to promote interfaith dialog and to humble their position as the default religious affiliation of the culture. That default position is changing rapidly, however. I believe the “nones” (people that claim no religious affiliation) are the fastest growing category in the U.S.

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