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.