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Rev. Barry Lynn Headshot

Who Needs a National Day of Prayer?

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A federal judge on April 15 ruled that the National Day of Prayer (NDP) is unconstitutional -- and the Religious Right is up in arms.

"This is a concerted effort by a small but determined number of people who have tried to prohibit all references to the Creator in the public square, whether it be the Ten Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance, or the simple act of corporate prayer -- this is unconscionable for a free society," Shirley Dobson, wife of radio counselor James Dobson and chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, asserted.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, which represented 31 members of Congress in a friend-of-the-court brief defending the National Day of Prayer, also chimed in.

"It is unfortunate that this court failed to understand that a day set aside for prayer for the country represents a time-honored tradition that embraces the First Amendment, not violates it," he moaned.

Give it a rest. The court made the right call. Here's why.

Government is supposed to be neutral on religion. It has no business telling people how, when or where to pray -- or even if they ought to pray. Government does lots of things well, but meddling in our private religious lives is not among them.

As a Christian minister, I can't understand why some clergy ever thought the National Day of Prayer was a good idea. It's my job to advise people on spiritual matters; the state has no business usurping that role. My fellow members of the clergy and I don't pass legislation or fill potholes, so maybe the government should just get off our turf.

Furthermore, the National Day of Prayer has always been soaked in the kind of offensive "God and country" rhetoric that many of us find nauseating. It was first proposed in the 1950s to show those godless commies a thing or two. In 1988, Congress codified it as the first Thursday in May. Congressionally mandated prayer in a country that separates church and state? I don't think so.

The NDP is not just an acknowledgment that Americans pray. It actively promotes religious practice. The government is, in fact, urging you to pray. That's simply not government's job.

In recent years, the NDP events have been taken over by aggressive Religious Right groups -- like Focus on the Family, founded by Shirley Dobson's husband -- which have used it in a highly offensive way and drenched it in fallacious, right-wing "Christian nation" pseudo-history. Worse, they've sponsored "Christians only" prayer events that exclude millions of Americans. (And by "Christians" they mean fundamentalists. Progressive Christians like me got nowhere near the microphone.)

In some communities, people got so fed up with the exclusive nature of NDP events that they started sponsoring rival get-togethers that were more inclusive. So we had dueling prayer showdowns! Nice way to bring everybody together, right?

Let's keep this simple: We separate religion and government in this country. That means the state has no business setting aside special days for prayer or other religious observances. It's just not the state's job.

Thomas Jefferson knew that. He refused to issue prayer proclamations during his presidency. James Madison issued few under pressure from Congress but later in his life wrote an essay saying he wished he hadn't. Andrew Jackson followed Jefferson's lead and refused to issue such proclamations entirely.

I'm not knocking prayer. I'm a minister, for heaven's sake! But I know enough about the subject to realize that for prayer to be meaningful, it has to come from the heart, be freely chosen, and not be an engine of state policy. Prayers pushed by the government aren't worth saying.

You want to pray on May 6? More power to you. I'll let you in on a little secret: You don't, and never did, need the government to give you a nudge.