Yesterday, the first Thursday of the month of May, was The National Day of Prayer, a time when Americans who are affiliated with any organized religion—or none—are urged to pray for our country by a Presidential Proclamation.
It strikes many as odd that we need a designated day for prayer, since we, as Americans, are free to practice prayer, or not, whenever we wish; each according to his or her own conscience, a right protected by our Constitution.
Our Founding Fathers were adamant about the separation of church and state from the beginning. In fact, when Benjamin Franklin proposed during the Constitutional Convention that the founders begin each day of their labors with a prayer to God for guidance, his suggestion was defeated!
It wasn’t until 1952, when, as a nation, we were embroiled in the Korean War, that the “need” to express ourselves nationally through prayer once again entered our national conscience.
We, and our allies, were in a fight to uphold freedom on many fronts against Communist aggression. Russia and China were considered “Godless” nations.
At that time, encouraged by the evangelist Billy Graham, and Conrad Hilton (founder of Hilton Hotels), Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas initiated a bill in Congress calling for the president to designate one day a year as a National Day of Prayer.
The bill passed, and was signed into law in 1952, by President Harry S. Truman. It wasn’t until 1954 as the Communist threat increased, that President Eisenhower amended our Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase, “Under God.” It was also the time when “In God We Trust” was placed on our currency joining the original statement, “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
There is no official U.S. government site on the internet for The National Day of Prayer (NDP). There is, however, a site designated as The National Day of Prayer Task Force. In recent years, most NDP activities have been coordinated by the “National Day of Prayer Task Force,” an Evangelical Christian non-profit group with close ties to the fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family. Whenever possible, they try to stage their NDP programs on public or government property, to give the impression that their activities are “official.”
This year, they anticipated 35,000 prayer events sanctioned by their organization. They produced materials and guidelines to enable communities to stage their own National Day of Prayer events. T-shirts and NDP buttons are available for purchase on their web site.
Over the last few years, many established faith groups have backed away from the officially designated National Day of Prayer, because the general feeling is that it has been “hijacked” by the NDP Task Force and its agenda. And what is that agenda? An excerpt of their National Day of Prayer states: “We (also) turn away from and refuse to participate in skepticism, criticism, and cynicism in our nation. We turn away from anything that divides us, and we run toward the gospel of Jesus Christ that is the only thing that has the power to unite us together.”
So, if you do attend any of the thousands of events being staged for National Day of Prayer, don’t expect diversity. Their theme for this year was UNITY, by which they mean Christian Unity, not American Unity.
Don’t expect to have heard from an array of Americans of faith on the pulpit or stage. In this setting, the American motto “United we Stand, Divided We Fall” precludes American Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Buddhists, Hindus; citizens all.
I believe that our Founding Fathers saw a different path for the future of faith in our new nation. Below is an excerpt taken from a letter by George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, Aug. 18, 1790:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
For more than 240 years, the Jewish worship service in America has included a beautiful and sincere prayer for our country, filled with gratitude, and which includes a plea that God imbue our leaders with the wisdom necessary to run the country. I believe that, no matter what your faith tradition, you will be comforted and inspired by its message, for its sentiments ring true every day, not only on the National Day of Prayer.
“Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country—for its government, for its leaders and advisers, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights from Your Torah (Five Books of Moses) that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.
Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.
May this land, under Your providence, be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom—helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.”
We sustain America by a combination of prayer and action. Prayer is that wonderful, powerful gift that allows us to articulate hope, awe, and gratitude. Even our wordless prayers; prayers of the heart, can be heard by God. Most prayers transcend denominations, and cultural differences, as they address such basic human emotions and universal themes.
We can pray for humanity, we can pray to become more human. We can pray for the power to cope with what life sends our way. We pray for healing, for ourselves and those we love. In moments of distress, we fervently pray for a good outcome. In this land of plenty, we pray more often for what we want, than what we need, and we offer prayers of thanksgiving for all we have. We ask God’s guidance when we are having a difficult time in our lives. And so very often, we pray to have the courage to accept those things over which we have no control.
On the National Day of Prayer, slip in one more special prayer, for the men and women of every creed who serve in our armed forces, who are ready to die to protect our rights under the Constitution including one of the greatest most radical statements of government in history, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”