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Living on a Prayer

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It's not a widely recognized "holiday," but today is the official National Day of Prayer. The name is rather self-explanatory: It's a day, set aside by law, in which the federal government encourages the nation to pray. And if you're thinking it's none of the government's business whether you pray or not, we're on the same page.

To be sure, of all the recent concerns about separation of church and state, this is probably not the most pressing. The president is using his so-called "faith-based" initiative as a slush fund to reward his conservative allies and Republicans are still intent on diverting more federal tax dollars to private schools run by religious ministries. These are direct assaults on the church-state "wall."

But on principle alone, the idea that there's an official "holiday" in which the government promotes and encourages prayer is just odd in a country in which the state is supposed to be neutral when it comes to religion.

It's not a new phenomenon -- but it doesn't go back to the Founding Fathers. In the early 1950s, when lawmakers were adding "under God" to the Pledge and changing all American money to include the phrase "In God We Trust," Congress created an official annual Prayer Day for the nation. Congress, under pressure from the religious right, changed the law in 1988 to establish the National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May, which brings us to today.

If small-government conservatives were ideologically consistent, you might expect them to reject a political effort like this. Americans are more than capable of deciding on their own whether or not to pray; it's just not the government's job to interfere. But consistency has never been the religious right's strongpoint -- they seem to believe that we need Congress and the White House to set aside a special day to promote praying, rather than leaving the matter to individuals, families, pastors, and religious institutions.

Indeed, just yesterday, Bush issued his latest prayer proclamation, explaining his belief that Americans "thank God for His many blessings and His care of our country." Bush added, "Through prayer, our faith is strengthened, our hearts are humbled, and our lives are transformed. May our Nation always have the humility to trust in the goodness of God's plans."

Part of the problem is the state endorsing prayer like this. The other part of the problem is that Bush does this more than any other president in American history.

In just the last year, Bush has issued proclamations calling on Americans to pray on Memorial Day, for Katrina victims, and for three days on the anniversary of 9/11.

I can appreciate the fact that Bush is a religious person who values the importance of prayer in his life. It's harder to understand, however, why the president finds it necessary to keep telling the rest of us to worship on such a regular basis.

As of today, Bush has issued proclamations marking 25 days as official days of prayer in the United States. The president has been in office about 63 months, which means he's issuing an official prayer declaration from the White House about once every 10 weeks. No president in U.S. history has ever issued so many official prayer edicts in office.

In fact, in the "good old days," this didn't occur. Presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed official government prayer days.

For the truly devout, every day is a day of prayer and government proclamations are irrelevant and unnecessary. It's a shame Bush doesn't understand that.

Then again, considering the way the president governs, Americans have probably found themselves praying more in the last five years than ever before.