Why a National Day of Prayer?

Tomorrow is, as the first Thursday in May has been for a couple of decades, the National Day of Prayer. I’ve noticed a lot more fuss among Conservatives about the day than most years. perhaps because of misleading rumors that President Obama had canceled the observance and because a federal judge had ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, many seem to have been galvanized to promote the day more enthusiastically than usual.

Their enthusiasm puzzles me. Prayer is only meaningful if motivated by sincere belief and intent. If people of sincere, humble belief are already praying, as they presumably do, what purpose a national day of prayer? If it takes the coercion of government declaration to get them to pray, what would be the purpose? How is that not vain prayer? If it is only a suggestion or encouragement to pray, why do we need to waste government time in message legislation or declarations sanctioning certain forms of observance? Are not the various religious organizations perfectly capable of voluntarily organizing to promote a national day of prayer should they deem it necessary? Why should we call upon the government, which conservatives paint as so ineffective, and which they want out of our personal lives, to lead us in prayer? Are presidents and government proclamations so much more effective than pastors, priests, and bishops in convincing people to pray? If it is a harmless gesture, as some supporters suggest, I wonder how they would react to the similarly harmless suggestion in a National Day of No Prayer?

I’m no lawyer. I don’t know that a National Day of Prayer is strictly unconstitutional. But I do believe that it is inconsistent with the core American value of Freedom of Conscience. While some of the Founders and early presidents, including both Washington and Adams, did champion national days of prayer, others—most prominently Jefferson and Madison, among the strongest advocates of Freedom of Conscience and early Republican values—opposed the practice.

Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it (Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Rev. Samuel Miller,” The Jefferson Cyclopedia).

Altho’ recommendations only, [National Days of Prayer] imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.

The objections to them are 1. that Govts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms. 2. The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate. 3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. (James Madison, detached memoranda, c. 1817).

Such observances overtly grant government favor to religion and theism over other alternatives. Further, despite some lip service to diversity, the day is, by the National Day of Prayer Task Force’s own admission, inherently sectarian in nature (the purpose includes “Foster unity within the Christian Church,” and “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage,” and otherwise uses language which is specifically Judeo-Christian in nature).

Certainly those who believe in God should pray tomorrow, as on any other day. But we shouldn’t use government to promote our beliefs or to give preference to our religious tradition over others if we truly want the nation to stand for freedom of religion.

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19 Responses to “Why a National Day of Prayer?”

  1. Derek Staffanson Says:

    For any who were paying attention: yes, I goofed. I had initially somehow entered this as “today” instead of “tomorrow,” as intended. I knew that today was Cinco de Mayo, not the NDoP. The error has been corrected.

  2. nat kelly Says:

    Wow, I didn’t even know such a day existed. I’ve been blissfully ignoring cable news of late. 🙂

    I agree with your critique here. It seems both coercive and exclusionary. Two not so good things.

  3. SUNNofaB.C.Rich Says:

    I guess you could write a post on the pointlessness of celebrating Cinco De Mayo…

  4. Derek Staffanson Says:

    SOBCR, I’ll tell you what: If I hear of a number of people complaining that the federal government isn’t doing enough to recognize that holiday, and accuse the president of being unpatriotic or anti-Latino for not doing enough to lead the nation in the celebrations, I’ll write up a post castigating them as well.

  5. SUNNofaB.C.Rich Says:

    honestly, I didn’t notice any fuss or even really know if I knew there was this “national day of prayer” but I guess if you look hard enough you’ll find something to disagree with on any given subject matter.


    There was celebration in the white house regarding the victory of Mexican Forces over French Forces on may 5 1862 commonly known as “Cinco De Mayo” completely irrelevant to most Americans sure, but probably more widely known than this “day of prayer” So, I guess if youre alright with the white house commemorating and celebrating the obscure and relatively unimportant victory of one party of foreign nationals over another party of foreign nationals maybe the white house recognizing and endorsing the fact that most people “believe in a supreme being” (as you mormons like to put it…) and believe he cares about their prayers doesn’t seem so much of an affront afterall.

  6. Derek Says:

    I guess you float in different circles than me, because I saw many people expressing shock and anger.

    In comparing the two holidays, you seem to forget that there is no founding principle separating government involvement in recognizing and celebrating other cultures and nationalities, while there is such a principle regarding the separation of Church and State.

  7. AL Says:

    “while there is such a principle regarding the separation of Church and State.”

  8. Derek Says:

    Read my series on the separation.

  9. AL Says:


  10. Derek Says:

    Look on the main page, under essential posts.

  11. SUNNofaB.C.Rich Says:

    oh, you take a strict constructionalist view of the U.S. constitution?

  12. Derek Says:

    I believe that the concept of separation of Church and State is one of the most important of the principles which grew out of the Enlightenment, which informed the founding of the nation, and which are necessary for a civil society.

  13. Do You Like Worms? Says:

    then obviously you must believe in American exceptionalism. Right? Right?

  14. Derek Staffanson Says:

    I fail to see a connection to what I’ve said with American exceptionalism. Perhaps you could elaborate.

  15. SUNNofaB.C.Rich Says:

    in terms of religious freedom surely you must concede to a degree of American exceptionalism.

  16. Derek Staffanson Says:

    How do you see freedom of conscience legitimating American Exceptionalism, SoaBCR?

  17. SUNNofaB.C.Rich Says:

    silly me, I forgot that the idea of religious freedom to the extent seen by the founding of the United States of America (which was necessary for the founding of your religion?) was an idea that was held as a high priority all over the world by almost all other civilizations long before the founding of the United States. So youre right buddy, that was NOT an example of American exceptionalism.

  18. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Yes, as I mentioned in my series of posts, freedom of conscience (imperfectly observed though it was) was crucial for the establishment of establishment of the LDS faith. And yes, the US at its founding practiced that principle–again very imperfectly–to a greater degree than any other nation at that time. Since that time, most of the western world has caught up with the US in that regard. To seize upon the issue of freedom of conscience as justification for the philosophy of American Exceptionalism seems to me rather arrogant.

  19. SUNNofaB.C.Rich Says:

    you’ve convinced me… there’s nothing exceptional about the U.S. constitution… including the concept of freedom of religion… I now find myself questioning why the cut and dry “constitutionality” of having a national day of prayer is even that important… perhaps it’s really.. not a big… deal…

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