Why I Don’t Like The National Day of Prayer

My blogging friend Eric, who blogs over at The Heart of a Pastor, disagreed with – took offense at? – my characterization of the National Day of Prayer as "an ill-advised blend of patriotism and religion" and an event "merging patriotism with the practice of faith" in last Thursday's post, National Day of Prayer, or Ascension Day?  He writes, "having a day when people across denominational lines can gather together to pray is a good thing . . . The NDOP is a time to pray…plain and simple."

I do not disagree that having a day when people across denominational lines can gather together to pray is a good thing.  Yet one of the reasons I do not like the National Day of Prayer is the political dynamic that takes place, particularly at celebrations of the National Day of Prayer in state capitals and in Washington.  It often becomes a pious photo-op for politicians, a chance for political and religious leaders alike to claim some faith-based agenda for our nation, and to speak of the "Judeo-Christian heritage" of our nation. 

[Question: how often do Jewish leaders speak of the "Judeo-Christian
heritage"?  "Judeo-Christian heritage" seems like a phrase that
Christians use to sound inclusive while really attempting to claim a
religious, moral, and historical priority in the retelling of the American
Story.  But I digress . . .]

As I mentioned in a past post (see #5), I support setting aside special times to pray for our nation.  Prayer is good.  Pious political posturing?  Not so good.  (Don't ask me – ask Jesus).  Perhaps my friend Eric and others who participated in National Day of Prayer events did so with faith, integrity, and humility.  Perhaps such events took place without the political posturing of elected officials.  I certainly hope so.  But plenty of such events are tainted by politics and blurred by a civic piety that unites God and country in an unholy alliance.

Beyond the political posturing that takes place, the whole ethos surrounding the National Day of Prayer is troublesome to me.  Check out their website.  It has a banner that changes graphics, one of which reads:

Prayer!  America's strength and shield.  The Lord is my strength and shield; my heart trusts in Him, and I am helped.  Psalm 28:7"

I disagree with the fundamental premise of this statement.  Prayer is the strength and shield of people of faith.  The strength of our nation lies in its Constitution, its laws, and its (socially, culturally, politically, and religiously diverse) people.  We are not a country based on a prayer or a shared religion, ethnicity, culture, or common heritage (in contrast to many "old world" countries which are/were much more monolithic).  We are a country where freedom and laws, not bloodlines and heritage, define our common purpose and identity.  When we try to inject explicitly Christian lingo into our national identity, we misrepresent what this country is about (and we risk diluting our Christian faith, as well).

This National Day of Prayer (1952), along with the National Prayer Breakfast (1953) and the insertion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (1954), are all products of a political era in which America was locked in a Cold War with the "godless" communism of the Soviet Union.  As we defined ourselves over and against the Soviets, we wrapped ourselves in a civic-minded piety in which God was on "our side" against a "godless" enemy.  I described the problem with this kind of piety in a previous post, Christian Prayers in Government Chambers: Music to the Devil's Ears:

And so from the lips of government power brokers this God of Country is
proclaimed, a God that loves freedom and democracy – and market
economies? – and which loyally stands at the side of our government.
It is a God that nary challenges the Powers-That-Be, much unlike
the God active in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, the
martyrs, or advocates of social change over the centuries.  No, this is
the God of Guantanamo and Abu-Ghraib, and if belief in this God of
Country gains currency in our society it poses a significant threat to
the teachings of our churches and the consciouses of our citizens.

More to write, perhaps, but it's getting late and my mind is going to mush.  G'night.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

8 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like The National Day of Prayer

  1. Thanks, Chris, for writing a post explaining more about your stance on the NDOP. First off, I wasn’t offended by what you wrote. Secondly, I agree about the political dynamic that often take place. For us here in Jackson, it was about praying together as people of faith. There were no photo ops of any sort. That aspect would bother me.
    But as you know, faith and our country go back a long ways…after all, wasn’t the US founded on Christian ideals? The NDOP goes back farther than 1952. “The National Day of Prayer is a vital part of our heritage. Since the first call to prayer in 1775, when the Continental Congress asked the colonies to pray for wisdom in forming a nation.” and “…the call to prayer has continued through our history, including President Lincoln’s proclamation of a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1863.”(National Day of Prayer website).
    We may not be a nation of shared religion, but we are a nation where we have a shared freedom to practice our religion. And the NDOP is not tied to any one religion.
    For me I think we need to be a nation of prayer. For me…I am not going to base my strength on the constitution. That was man-made and can be changed. Prayer is power.
    Thank you again, Chris, for this post. I look forward to further conversation.

  2. Is it just a coincidence that they are declaring prayer for the election as a “red dot” day…you know, as in red state/blue state?
    I chose for our church not to participate in or endorse or even advertise NDOP. The whole rally round the flag in the name of Jesus thing makes me uneasy. Because we are so close to the state capital, which is run by a certain political party that has sold out to Christian fundamentalists, the display here was really quite disturbing. It was basically a who’s who parade of prominent fundamentalists and Republicans.
    In general I do not always stand against blending politics and religion…the two inform one another. Right about the time that Chris originally posted on praying in government chambers, I led a prayer to open our county commissioners meeting. I have no real issue with leaving “under God” in the pledge or “In God we Trust” on money. But the NDOP crosses a line for me.

  3. Good discussion in the post and in the comments.
    Not exactly NDOP, but public prayer by politicians: Two things bother me, first, a political leader who says, “God Bless America!” not May God Bless… or I pray that God Bless…. My distinction is that the first statement comes across to me as the politician ordering God to do this or assuming that God will bless the current state of things in America.
    The second irritation is when there is a tragedy and the Famous Person wants to show sympathy and concern, but says something like, “We’re sending our prayers out to her.” Huh? Prayers are to go to God, right? Sometimes these statements are made by people who supposedly have a Christian faith and attend church regularly. This way of stating concern is becoming more common than what I would term a more correct way of stating that one is praying about a situation.

  4. I do believe that people have some funny notions about prayer. Often times those statements by politians, celebrities and the like are said but not meant. It “sounds good” to say something about prayer.
    The “God bless America” statements do irk me a little bit too. I think there are a lot of thinking and beliefs that many people have messed up. They may have good intentions but really are promoting bad theology.
    Our NDOP event focused on the acronym ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. During the Confession part we took some quiet time to confess our personal sins and the sins of our nation.

  5. My congregation didn’t acknowledge this at all, which isn’t surprising considering we are going through a leadership transition at the moment and have bigger things to worry about.
    I live in a state capital, and the governor hosted a prayer breakfast that day for the state legislators, who are in session right now. Our current governor is Catholic, with a fundamentalist bent, and the whole thing really took that tone. Most of the churches here who participated were also from the Southern Baptist/Nondenominational/Fundamentalist mindset.
    Personally, I like religion and politics kept pretty separate. I don’t have a problem praying for the leadership of the nation in a general kind of way (praying for wisdom and guidance as opposed to praying that they vote a particular way on a specific issue), but when prayer is used to promote a particular political agenda, that bothers me.

  6. I totally agree with you, Sheryl. We should be praying for our leadership in a general way; asking for wisdom and guidance for them, not for them to vote in a particular way. After all, we don’t know what God’s will is on any particular issue.
    I wonder, though, if the problems for the NDOP arise when politians organize the event as opposed to the Church. Then again, it would depend on the church/leader organizing the event.
    One thing I failed mention…our morning events were held at the four schools in our district. We had a short prayer time for teachers and a time for students, before school began. Both times were well attended and I felt they were both very powerful times.
    Thank you again for the discussion.

  7. I have not experienced observing the National Day of Prayer here, but in my small town, it was really apolitical, and ecumenical. It was one of the few opportunities for different denominations to get together, and it was pretty low key (one year we sang the Prayer of St. Francis, as one of the songs.

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