Our church observes the National Day of Prayer by opening our auditorium to any who want to come in at any time during the day and pray. In the past, we have stationed individuals there to assist, but this year, we decided to simply leave the room open, put some background music on and make it available. We also hold about an hour long prayer service, in which various members of the church read scripture and lead in prayer. And we encourage our members to find similar events scheduled near where they are working during the day and attend those if possible.
Having a National Day of Prayer is not a violation of the constitution. It is not a sectarian event, nor can it be said that it is specifically a Christian event. Most religions practice a form of prayer, and for those people who do not, the declaration of the observation of the National Day of Prayer is not compulsory. To officially declare such a day, then, does not violate any of the legal tests for government neutrality with regard to religion.
The President of the United States has the personal perogative to recognize and celebrate such events as he chooses. President Bush chose to invite a group of individuals from a national organization related to the National Day of Prayer to conduct a service to commemorate the day in the East Room of the White House, a service in which he participated. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Every President does things a little bit differently, that’s an expectation in America. The fact that he chose this particular group appeared to some as a political statement, and he was certainly criticized for doing so, a risk that every President runs with every choice they make, but I do not believe he intended to slight any other religion or its leadership by making this particular choice. His freedom of religious expression is guaranteed by the constitution as well, and this was a choice he made within that domain.
Likewise, President Obama’s choice to issue a proclamation of recognition, and not to conduct or attend a public ceremony on the National Day of Prayer is a personal choice which is consistent with the pattern of some of his predecessors, including George H.W. Bush. And while, as Americans, we think it is our perogative to judge the intentions and motives of the President based on every single decision he makes, and every single word that comes out of his mouth, as Christians, the scriptures do not give us the privilege of either judging his faith or criticizing his motives based on such decisions. The President acknowledged the significance of the day with a proclamation, a call to Americans to pray specifically for a list of things (many of which were included with the prayer guides distributed by the organization spearheaded by Shirley Dobson) and observed the recognition privately. There is nothing wrong with that, either, and the criticism that has come about as a result makes those who are criticizing look petty.
Faith is not a political matter. Though the way candidates and politicians choose to express their own has been used as a way to influence voters either favorably or unfavorably depending on who the candidate is and what their other political views might be, that is not its purpose. The American people have the constitutionally guaranteed right to gather for prayer as they choose, to pray as they choose, and to pray for whatever they choose. That includes the President of the United States himself. We need to celebrate the fact that our leaders have so recognized this right, as well as the power of prayer, that they have set aside a calendar date to remind us to do so. I certainly hope we find our way to our closet much more often than just once a year.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners that they may be seen by others. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. 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.” Matthew 6:5-6 ESV