In the weeks leading up to National Day of Prayer 2010, the news has reported several controversies surrounding prayer -- including the "disinvitation" of Franklin Graham from one prayer event. The stories peddle a common tale: a new sort of religious pluralism has somehow undermined the American practice of harmonious prayer beseeching the Supreme Being to bless the state. However, no storyline could be further from historical reality. Americans have never been unified in prayer. When it comes to prayer, Americans love to fight -- and our prayers have driven us apart. Arguing over prayer is an American tradition.
In the 1600s, Puritans rejected the formalized prayer of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and founded their own churches as a way of protesting state-supported prayer. For their trouble, the Anglicans put them in jail. When they got out, they left England and settled in the New World. But the Anglicans were already there with their own colonies and outlawed Puritan prayers again. So the Puritans outlawed Anglican prayer in their own colonies. Quakers, disgusted with the Puritan-Anglican quarrel, rejected verbal prayers altogether, choosing to pray silently instead.
In the 1740s, during the Great Awakening, the new evangelical preachers practiced extemporaneous prayer. They rejected all written prayers in favor of being "moved by the Spirit" and making up public prayers on the spot. Many in traditional churches -- Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Congregationalists -- found extemporaneous prayer to be theologically shallow and "unlearned" and forbade its exercise in their churches. These groups didn't imprison each other over prayer. Instead, they consigned each other to hell and set up rival denominations to insure their own salvation. American churches split over prayer, leaving some to free-form prayer and others to written and ritualized prayers.
After the Revolutionary War, a puzzling question arose: Whose prayer would undergird the new nation? How might prayer be practiced in the commons? What words should bless state functions?
The political leaders (perhaps recognizing that prayer was above their pay grade) came up with a unique and practical answer: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." In other words, "We won't touch that prayer-thing with a twenty-foot pole. You are on your own, people."
Of course, the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the Constitution didn't solve anything. Congress, despite trying to avoid the issue, had chaplains -- most typically of the formal type -- who prayed for their work. And Americans -- even in the early period when most of them were Protestants -- kept arguing over whose prayer was theologically accurate and most spiritually effective. Entire denominations were formed on the basis of devotional style. And as Americans argued and denominations split over prayer, religious leaders and politicians continued to proclaim days of prayer for national unity.
Some of the organizers of today's National Day of Prayer appeal to Abraham Lincoln as the example a political leader setting aside a day for prayer and repentance. Indeed, in 1863, Lincoln appointed a national day of prayer saying it would result in unity. The proclamation read:
All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.
Weeks later, the North and South bloodied and butchered each other in a place called Gettysburg. Two years after his prayer proclamation, Lincoln remarked on prayer's inadequacy to bring the nation together. In his Second Inaugural Address, he wrote, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. ... The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."
The sentiment of a National Day of Prayer for communal forgiveness and social unity is nice, even noble. It is also politically expedient. Honestly, what politician can vote against prayer and hope to get re-elected? But whose prayer? Which theology? What form of devotion? National prayer without a state church is utterly unrealistic and consistently raises knotty theological and political questions, as our forebears discovered. American prayer has more often divided us rather than uniting us. If today's news headlines are any indication, that is still the case. Maybe the Quakers had it right all along: Next year we should try a "National Day of Silence" instead.