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.