Government Sponsored “National Day of Prayer”
The “official” government-sponsored “National Day of Prayer”, which was first established by Congress in 1952, was held on May 7. But now there appears to be a bit of controversy over the event. News reports indicate that there is concern that the National Day of Prayer (NDOP) is not inclusive enough of all religions. The National Day of Prayer Task Force, which coordinates the event, is an Evangelical Christian organization led by Shirley Dobson, wife of “Focus on the Family” founder James Dobson. The Task Force’s website says that the purpose of the day is “to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer… and to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families”. The prayer the organization promulgated for this year’s event both starts and ends with a mention of Jesus. Therefore, some are saying that the NDOP needs to be more inclusive of other religions. For example, the advocacy group JewsOnFirst (as an Abbott and Costello fan, I love that name) has been calling for a more inclusive NDOP for years. That organization argues that the NDOP Task Force excludes Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, and mainline Protestants from participation in NDOP events held around the country. JewsOnFirst and other critics of the Task Force appear to mean well, but they are wrong. The NDOP doesn’t need to be changed; it needs to be ended, at least as a government-sponsored event. As a private event, fine; but government needs to stay out of it.
The National Day of Prayer, and the controversy it has engendered, is precisely why the framers of the Constitution placed the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”. For those who don’t think the Establishment Clause was intended to separate church from state, look at the words of James Madison, the Constitution’s primary author: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution”. Or Thomas Jefferson: “Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights”. Or Thomas Paine: “Persecution is not an original feature of any religion, but is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law”.
The Founding Fathers knew the importance of separating church and state, but we seem to have forgotten it. If we allow government to get involved with religion, it will inevitably lead to conflict and strife over just whose religion will predominate. In appointing an Evangelical Christian group as custodian of the NDOP, the government has favored one religious sect over all others, which is strictly forbidden. Yes, it would be better if the NDOP Task Force were more inclusive, but this wouldn’t solve the basic problem. JewsOnFirst argues that the current leadership group excludes Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, and mainline Protestants, which it does. But even if the Task Force included all of these groups, it would still be excluding Mormons, Buddhists, Wiccans, Scientologists, Satanists, Rastafarians, Pastafarians (those who worship, in a very tongue-in-cheek way, the Flying Spaghetti Monster) and many others too numerous to mention. Should some of these groups be omitted in favor of including only “mainstream” religions? If so, who would decide what is “mainstream” and what isn’t? It would have to be government that decides, and that is precisely the problem. It is no place of our government to favor some religions over others, or even to favor religion over non-religion. This is a function to be decided by individuals themselves without government interference. Do we really want to go back to the way Europe was before the Enlightenment, when Protestants and Catholics (all Christians, of course) slaughtered each other by the thousands in wars fought over whose religion should predominate in government and society? Look how well that’s still working out for Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we abandon a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?” Or to return to that great drafter of the Constitution, James Madison, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries”.