National Day of Prayer
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The National Day of Prayer (celebrated on the first Thursday of May), which has also been referred to as the "National Day of Wishful Thinking," is a day when politicians can pander to Americans who chose the correct religion and come together and ask God to please refrain from smiting them. The day is generally endorsed by the United States federal government; and though it does not specify any particular religion, there is a clear bias towards the Judeo-Christian God, with some general lip service to the Muslim god. It is generally not considered appropriate to have a Neo-Pagan Bacchanalia prayer, nor has the federal government ever included the bongs, gongs, and chants of Mahayana Buddhism.
In 2008 some pesky secularists established the National Day of Reason as an alternative for those who prefer to do something a bit more material, such as organising blood donations,
sacrifices to Darwin, praise of the Humanist Manifesto and other hippy-liberal-tree-hugging celebrations.
As a recurring annual event, the day was originally proclaimed in 1952 by President Harry S. Truman following a joint resolution by Congress. Truman's original proclamation established an annual event, but did not specify a day on which the event would occur, leaving that up to each President to decide (Truman chose the 4th of July). In 1988, Saint Ronnie designated the first Thursday of May as the day the event would fall on each year.
There had been days of prayer prior to 1952, albeit normally invoked during significant periods in American history, such as:
- In 1775, when the Continental Congress set aside July 20th to ask for divine guidance and aid in (re-)establishing their proper liberties vis-a-vis the United Kingdom and the British Empire (and instead ended up getting the American Revolution and the United States as an independent republic...).
- During the American Civil War when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed April 30th, 1863 a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.
- At the surrender of the Japanese in 1945.
Is it constitutional?
A government-mandated day of prayer may breach the Establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is arguable that the government prescribing a day of prayer constitutes the enforcement of religious observances, even if participation in prayer is not a legal obligation.
Contrary to claims of some Christian fundamentalists, the Founding Fathers were generally not gung-ho Christian whackjobs wishing to see the state controlling the religious beliefs of Americans. In 1808, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following on this topic:
“”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. ...civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."
On the 15th of April 2010, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb found that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional, stating:
“”It goes beyond mere 'acknowledgment' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.
But too bad
But wait! That ruling was later vacated by the Supreme Court, not on a finding that the National Day of Prayer was constitutional, but that the plaintiffs lack standing to seek relief in regards to it.
The Day of Prayer prescribes no specific God or religion. Truman's 1945 proclamation contained language, that while not specifically mentioning Christianity by name, was certainly directed towards the male Abrahamic god:
“”I call upon the people of the United States, of all faiths, to unite in offering their thanks to God for the victory we have won, and in praying that He will support and guide us into the paths of peace.
Truman's 1952 proclamation did not invite other faiths, preferring to ask for people to talk to "Almighty God." You don't have to be Christian to pray here, but it sure helps. Groups such as the non-governmental National Day of Prayer Task Force ensure that the day is celebrated as
crackpots with no knowledge of American history and the Constitution the Founding Fathers intended.
- Cue: This was during the bloody stalemate phase of the Korean War and the heyday of the McCarthyist Red Scare and the idea seems to have originated with Billy Graham. Ah, them 1950s good old days...
- Proclamation 2978 - National Day of Prayer, 1952
- Davis, Derek H. (2000). Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774–1789: Contributions to Original Intent. Oxford University Press. pp. 84–85. ISBN 9780195350883.
- Proclamation 97 - Appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer
- Proclamation 2660 - Victory in the East--Day of Prayer
- Letter to the Reverend Samuel Miller.
- Associated Press: Federal judge rules Day of Prayer unconstitutional
- The National Day of Prayer Taskforce is run by Focus on the Family, which kind of gives you an indication of their agenda.