Photo by Paul M. Walsh. Creative Commons License
Source: Photo by Paul M. Walsh. Creative Commons License

The National Day of Prayer is upon us once again, which makes this a good time to recall that the annual event is a relatively recent invention made possible by the rise of the Christian Right. There was a time, long ago, when official government endorsement of prayer was a rarity and not a recurrent event used to define the country, but most Americans today are too young to remember such days.

Government-issued religious proclamations were controversial even with the framers. Thomas Jefferson refused to make them during his presidency. John Adams and James Madison were both persuaded to issue calls for thanksgiving and prayer, but both later expressed regret. “They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion,” Madison wrote. Interestingly, after Madison, none of the next eleven presidents issued such proclamations.

Nowadays, of course, the National Day of Prayer is an annual May event, much touted by right-wing culture warriors as evidence of America’s Christian fabric. With recognition of the day now required by law, fundamentalist Christian leaders vocally object if public officials dare to proclaim the day in a low-key way. When President Obama recognized his first National Day of Prayer with a written proclamation but no public ceremony, for example, Christian leaders were highly critical. “We are disappointed in the lack of participation by the Obama administration,” said Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a sectarian nonprofit that promotes the day.

Dobson is the wife of James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, fundamentalist Christian activist groups that oppose reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, divorce, and even stem-cell research. This is the crowd behind the National Day of Prayer, which in this context can be seen as a vehicle for institutionalizing the entanglement of government and religion to further a broader agenda.

The emergence of the National Day of Prayer as a high-profile event in American culture came about via an insidious, long-term process that was initiated by earlier conservative religious leaders. Though it took decades, their success has resulted in an annual day of invidious governmental action that gets considerable media attention, as Americans—young and old, religious and nonreligious—observe their government endorse theistic concepts as being quintessentially American.

It was in the 1950s that those wishing to define American government with religion made their move. During that decade, notable for staunch anti-communism, McCarthyism, God-and-country nationalism, and a general atmosphere of fear and paranoia, an unprecedented stream of religiosity flowed into public life. The 1950s saw “In God We Trust” become the national motto (1956), “under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954), the start of the National Prayer Breakfast (1953) and, of course, legislation requiring the president to declare a National Day of Prayer each year (1952).

That National Day of Prayer legislation, however, did not specify when the annual event should take place, but instead allowed the president to decide when to proclaim the day each year. Without a regular, scheduled date, the event often went unnoticed by the general population.

In the 1980s, however, things changed with the rise of the Religious Right. In 1988, President Reagan, who owed much of his political success to religious conservatives, signed a law that formalized the National Day of Prayer, declaring that the first Thursday in May each year shall be set aside for the event. With its own official annual date, the National Day of Prayer gained prominence and became an event for religious conservative activists to huddle around, plan for, and exploit as proof that America is indeed the deeply religious country that they claim it to be.

Indeed, it's noteworthy that the aforementioned National Day of Prayer Task Force shows little interest in promoting an ecumenical, interfaith day of prayer, but instead emphasizes a narrow, conservative Christian theology. "Personal repentance and righteousness" are expressly encouraged, and its leaders have always been conservative Christians. Muslims, Hindus, and even liberal Christians have complained about the blatant sectarian character of the event. One group described the task force's effect as "turning a day of faith into a rally for the Christian Right."

On the secular side of the culture war, this entanglement of government with religion does not sit well. This is why seculars promote their own special day on the first Thursday of May each year: the National Day of Reason. Unlike particular religious opinions and practices, the belief underlying the National Day of Reason is that reason is a concept upon which everyone can agree.

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Photo by Paul M. Walsh. Creative Commons License.

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