As presidents have formally done every year since 1952 (and informally before that), President Obama on Thursday, May 7, will issue a proclamation urging our country to "turn to God in prayer and meditation."
By longstanding national tradition, we will be observing another National Day of Prayer. Permanently slated for the first Thursday in May during the Reagan administration, this day is set aside to acknowledge what President Obama just last year described thusly: "One of our Nation's great strengths is the freedom we hold dear, including the freedom to exercise our faiths freely. For many Americans, prayer is an essential act of worship and a daily discipline. Today and every day, prayers will be said for comfort for those who mourn, healing for those who are sick, protection for those who are in harm's way, and strength for those who lead."
Here's the thing: despite this intended practice of uniting, guiding and healing, in actuality, this "spiritual occasion" (which is officially a federal government-endorsed occasion) can make such a day feel like a watered-down version of authentic prayer.
If we look at this in light of the original spirit of church-state separation in our great nation, we will remember that the Baptist minister who penned the original Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 (Francis Bellamy) did so without using the words "under God." It was as if Bellamy abided another Baptist trailblazer's words, Roger Williams, who maintained that there exists a "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."
For any reasonable religion, it is impossible to have their individual complexity and particularity reduced to the lowest common theological denominator. To do this would be far from a genuine demonstration of heartfelt religious devotion. Generic mentions of God and benign expressions of prayer in the public square, although constitutional, are inadequate substitutes for authentic religious service and practices of private devotion.
To be sure, public show of religious practices, such as prayer, can undermine more important spiritual principals and purpose. Although legislative prayer has been held not to offend the Constitution, in this country, the last thing we need is a shallow political demonstration of ceremonial deism (nor any more shallowness in our politics or our religions). The distillation of values, voices, and viewpoints may offend the sensibilities of many Christians and people of other faiths, who believe that religious service and practice should be done discreetly and according to the dictates of conscience.
Prayer by its essential nature is God's business, not government business. The state's job is not to administer such a sacred function any more than clergy or houses of worship are to endorse politicians, pass legislation, or plan road construction projects for America's interstates. Further, religio-political leaders searching for political style points should not desecrate prayer in order to earn it.
In a 1976 essay in the Journal of Church and State, the late Southern Baptist theologian, Frank Stagg, referring specifically to the White House prayer breakfast, wondered if such public acts revealed "a nation on its knees before God" or "the church on its knees before Caesar?" He, like many others, recognized the temptation to equate public forms of piety with heartfelt religious devotion.
My point is this: let's not confuse patriotism and genuine piety. Neither is it spiritually wise to lump a practice as sacred as prayer into the narrative of American exceptionalism with the flashy spectacles of what can be construed by even the most bona fide of the blessed as a self-congratulatory occasion.
To all of those who believe in the spiritual power of prayer as essential to the health of our nation; to all who believe that the multiple faiths of our country can inspire compassionate spirits and wise actions; to all of those who hope and pray and work for a better world; to all of those who are persuaded that the practice of prayer can transform us in body, mind, and spirit to such a degree that we can be peacemakers and justice-bearers for all of God's children who have the inalienable right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," go ahead and pray freely, openly, and from the heart. And do so knowing that we simply don't need the government to tell us how, where, or when to do it.