Theocracy Watch X: The National Day of Prayer

I failed to mention previously that last Thursday, May 3, was the “National Day of Prayer” in the United States. Believe it or not, the nation that created the First Amendment has such a day. The bill creating this national observance was signed into law in 1952 by President Harry Truman, and another bill fixing its date as the first Thursday in May was signed in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan. The purpose of this day, according to the original bill’s text, is for Americans to “turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals” (source).

If I were a religious person, I would find this offensive enough. The government has no business telling me when I should be praying or what I should be praying for. But to an atheist, it is even more obvious that this event is repugnant to the principles of the Constitution that governs our land. Not only does the government have no right to tell us when we should pray or for what, it has no right to tell us whether we should be praying at all. That is an entirely private and individual matter, completely outside the sphere of government, and none of its concern. We live in a secular state where the citizens’ religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are irrelevant to their ability to participate fully in society, and what we believe or do not believe is no business of publicity-seeking politicians.

We once had founding fathers who understood this. Sadly, America has become blind to the wisdom of great men like Thomas Jefferson, who specifically refused to proclaim a national day of fasting and prayer when he was president:

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies, that the General Government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises and the objects proper for them according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it… Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

Even worse, however, the National Day of Prayer has in practice become not an inclusive, generically interfaith event, but a chance for the Christian fundamentalist right to boast about their piety and press for their specific vision of a theocratic state. Consider the National Day of Prayer Task Force, whose banner proclaims that theirs is the “Official Website” of the National Day of Prayer. Given its constant invocation of words like “official”, “honorary” and “national” and their claims about “coordinating” events for this day, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was a body endorsed or sponsored by the government, and the NDPTF’s website does nothing to dispel that misconception.

In fact, it is not a government body, but an extreme right-wing Christian theocratic group. It is chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of right-wing ideologue James Dobson of Focus on the Family. (So we don’t get the wrong idea, the website helpfully explains that although the NDPTF is a separate organization from Focus on the Family, it works out of the Focus on the Family headquarters “for convenience”). Prior to Dobson, its chair was Vonette Bright, wife of Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright.

The NDPTF website is rife with specifically Christian, specifically Protestant evangelical language. It is blazoned with Bible quotes, links to numerous right-wing groups, and proclaims that its mission is to “communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer and mobiliz[e] the Christian community to intercede for America”. And though it trumpets this year’s motto as “America, Unite In Prayer”, the fine print states that its activities are only for “Judeo-Christians” – i.e., Christians. So much for uniting!

The religious right’s triumphalism and exploitation of the National Day of Prayer shows why such events are both unconstitutional and dangerous. These theocratic groups will seize on any crack, however fine, in the wall of separation between church and state and try to wedge that crack open into a gap through which religion and government can mingle with impunity. That is why this wall must be kept high and impregnable, with not the slightest breach allowed. Thankfully, the power of the religious right has been greatly diminished, but American politicians of all parties still show a nauseating willingness to cozy up to religious groups in exchange for votes, cloaking their unconstitutional actions in flowery rhetoric of patriotism. We atheists must become more visible and politically organized to show our public officials that flaunting their faith is not a foolproof way to win support.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com 6th Floor Blogger

    politicians in this country need to more often ask themselves WWJD, or What Would Jefferson Do(Or really many of the founding fathers), before enacting things like national days of prayer.

    Sadly the only founding father’s they’re thinking about usually come on little green pieces of paper.

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com 6th Floor Blogger

    politicians in this country need to more often ask themselves WWJD, or What Would Jefferson Do(Or really many of the founding fathers), before enacting things like national days of prayer.

    Sadly the only founding father’s they’re thinking about usually come on little green pieces of paper.

  • Polly

    I was always surprised that this was actually made law without any challenge.
    I don’t think it violates the constitution in principle, since it does not endorse a particular religion and is certainly not compulsory. However, in practice, there is room for abuse, and I was always a little uncomfortable with the idea of government prayer. It goes against our secular ideals of government. But, I’m sure I was in the minority.
    I still find it mostly harmless. I’d like to see a few representatives of Eastern Religions at the White House (or wherever) to lead the prayer. Let’s see if Dobson’s crew will crow about that. Better yet, maybe a Mormon prayer session with Romney if he gets the nomination and then elected.

    If I were a religious person, I would find this offensive enough. The government has no business telling me when I should be praying or what I should be praying for.

    The entire religious establishment (industry) is founded upon telling people what to do with their spiritual lives. The faithful LOVE to be goaded into prayer. People in general actually like having strangers with authority tell them how to live, as long that authority isn’t invested in enforcement efforts. That’s why people listen to sermons and buy into self-help programs despite the virtual certainty that they’re going to hear things they ALREADY KNOW!

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Polly said:

    I don’t think it violates the constitution in principle, since it does not endorse a particular religion and is certainly not compulsory.

    Doesn’t it violate the constitution by endorsing religion over non-religion? I don’t see how its status as voluntary or compulsary makes a difference, it still seems to me to be a law passed by the government concerning religion, which I understand to be in breach of the first amendment.

  • Polly

    Doesn’t it violate the constitution by endorsing religion over non-religion?

    I would think so, yes. And that goes for our currency, too. I do not trust in god, why should my money???
    I was reasoning within the context of my first observation, as to why it’s still on the books. But, I’m not a constitutional lawyer. In fact, I’m no lawyer at all. I haven’t read the text of the law, either.
    And, I have no desire to “defend” it.

    Is there a lawyer in the house?

  • Michael

    This does not offend offend me. This is like a Hallmark Holiday for people who give a rip. If you don’t pray then it is not applicable. I bet no one complains here when they get out of work for religious holidays such as Christmas. If you don’t, I find this argument ironic.

  • terrence

    Michael, just FYI: Start with this blog’s parent site, any of the other excellent sites and books that are available, and discover for yourself that Christmas is not a religious holiday in the way you think it is. Hint:

    http://www.mwillett.org/atheism/atheistchristmas.html

  • Michael

    So I Google’d Atheist Christmas because your link is broken FWI. BTW I knew some of the information before reading that. Whether it is infused with Pagan influence is irrelevant. That would still be a theistic influence. Or the reason people stared it was theistic in nature.
    I guess what I failed to say is that it is a day that is celebrated as a prayer day for those who wish to have one. I don’t see it as any different than being single on Valentines day. No one forces you to celebrate it. You can ignore it altogether like I do Presidents Day! You can do what you wish. At the most it is highly annoying. Oh and I have no idea why my font changed.

  • ex machina

    But Christmas is not a nationally recognized holiday. It is purely up to the employer to offer Christmas off to their employees. Most choose to as a perk of employment.

  • ex machina

    But Christmas is not a nationally recognized holiday. It is purely up to the employer to offer Christmas off to their employees. Most choose to as a perk of employment.

  • Michael

    Strictly speaking, the United States has no national holidays since each state designates holidays through the legislative process or by executive order. The United States Congress can legally designate holidays for federal employees and for the District of Columbia.
    Essentially all we are really discussing is time off from work. Employers ar not required by law to give employees off. They are required to give consideration for religious events.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com/ Kullervo

    Okay, I’m not a lawyer but I know a little of which I speak.

    The problem with the potential unconstitutionality of the national day of prayer is that even if it is unconstitutional, someone would have to sue to make it stop, and to sue you’d have to show a concrete and particularized injury of some sort (so that you would have standing). “My calendar made me think about God when I didn’t want to” is not enough. “I don’t like living in a ocuntry that supports religion and I shouldn;t have to” is also not enough.

    You can’t sue based on your undifferentiated share of an injury generalized to everyone.

    However, there is an exception for the establishment clause- you can, as a taxpayer, sue to make the government stop using tax money in support of religion. SO if any tax dollars get spent on the NDP, someone just has to sue and show it is in violation of the 1st Amendment. It won’t necessarily make the day go away (it could, if you sued for injunctive relief, but more probbly the result of such a lawsuit would only result in an injunction against spending tax money on it).

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com/ Kullervo

    Okay, I’m not a lawyer but I know a little of which I speak.

    The problem with the potential unconstitutionality of the national day of prayer is that even if it is unconstitutional, someone would have to sue to make it stop, and to sue you’d have to show a concrete and particularized injury of some sort (so that you would have standing). “My calendar made me think about God when I didn’t want to” is not enough. “I don’t like living in a ocuntry that supports religion and I shouldn;t have to” is also not enough.

    You can’t sue based on your undifferentiated share of an injury generalized to everyone.

    However, there is an exception for the establishment clause- you can, as a taxpayer, sue to make the government stop using tax money in support of religion. SO if any tax dollars get spent on the NDP, someone just has to sue and show it is in violation of the 1st Amendment. It won’t necessarily make the day go away (it could, if you sued for injunctive relief, but more probbly the result of such a lawsuit would only result in an injunction against spending tax money on it).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    But as the quote in my article shows, Thomas Jefferson (as well as James Madison) felt that the declaration of official days of prayer exceeded the legitimate authority of the government. Somehow, it seems the nation has forgotten that the Constitution was originally meant to explicitly enumerate the powers that the government possessed. If they do anything beyond what that document specifies, the burden should be on them to prove its constitutionality; the burden should not be on the citizenry to prove its unconstitutionality. It’s amazing how completely this has gotten reversed over time.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    But as the quote in my article shows, Thomas Jefferson (as well as James Madison) felt that the declaration of official days of prayer exceeded the legitimate authority of the government. Somehow, it seems the nation has forgotten that the Constitution was originally meant to explicitly enumerate the powers that the government possessed. If they do anything beyond what that document specifies, the burden should be on them to prove its constitutionality; the burden should not be on the citizenry to prove its unconstitutionality. It’s amazing how completely this has gotten reversed over time.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com/ Kullervo

    But that’s just not the way the law works in practice, in any area of Constitutional law.

    In fact, the Constitution absolutely does not “explicitly” enumerate powers- the Articles of Confederation did, and that was a problem. The “necessary and proper” clause alone blows the idea of “explicitly enumerated powers” out of the water.

    Anyway, I agree that a national day of prayer is extremely Constitutionally suspect at best, but it wouldn’t even make any sense in our legal/Constitutional system for “the burden to be on them to prove it’s Constitutionality.” Maybe once it gets into court the burden can fall that way, but until then? There’s just no mechanism for it under the Constitution other than Congressional restraint (yeah right) and the political system (i.e., don’t vote for people who support a national day of prayer).

    It’s just the reality of the way the system works.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t agree that the Constitution does not explicitly enumerate the powers of government. The Ninth Amendment doesn’t make much sense otherwise, and the “necessary and proper” clause only applies to the powers granted to Congress by the previous clauses. It’s not a license for them to make any laws they deem necessary.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I don’t agree that the Constitution does not explicitly enumerate the powers of government. The Ninth Amendment doesn’t make much sense otherwise, and the “necessary and proper” clause only applies to the powers granted to Congress by the previous clauses. It’s not a license for them to make any laws they deem necessary.

  • E.H.

    This is a great blog! I’ve been reading it for a while.

    Its a bit nervy and reckless of the gov’t to let the fundies monopolize such a “Day.” The only possible pseudo-justification for it would be that it was interfaith and inclusive (or even that “prayer” may be interpreted to include meditation or philosophical contemplation if you prefer). It will be interesting to see if any challenges come up in court, or if we get demands for a Day of Skepticism or Day of Reason. How about Einstein Day or Darwin Month?

  • E.H.

    This is a great blog! I’ve been reading it for a while.

    Its a bit nervy and reckless of the gov’t to let the fundies monopolize such a “Day.” The only possible pseudo-justification for it would be that it was interfaith and inclusive (or even that “prayer” may be interpreted to include meditation or philosophical contemplation if you prefer). It will be interesting to see if any challenges come up in court, or if we get demands for a Day of Skepticism or Day of Reason. How about Einstein Day or Darwin Month?

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com/ Kullervo

    Well, Ebombuse, the Supreme Court has consistently disagreed with you since McCulloch v. Maryland, which is pretty much one of the most fundamental cases on the powers of the different branches of governments. The Bank of the United States was not explicitly one of the powers enumerated, but it fell under necessary and proper.

    You can disagree all you want, but “explicitly” is explicitly not in there, for exactly that reason. Again, that was the problem with the Articles of Confederation. Again, see McCulloch v. Maryland. You are at liberty to think McCulloch was wrongly decided, but in order to do that you’d have to overturn so much of the law that has been decided since 1819 that our governmental system wouldn;t even make sense anymore..

    Necessary and proper isn’t a blank check to do anything and everything, but it does vastly expand on the enumerated powers, and really makes the “explicit” idea make no sense.

    As far as appealing to the Tenth Amendment (you said ninth, but that one is about non-enumerated rights; the Tenth is the one about delegated powers and the states), that’s a hazy proposition at best. It was probably the weakest amendment from the beginning (being basically a truism), and with a few notable exceptions (like commandeering of the state legislature/executive a la New York v. United States and Printz v. United States; and the basic ill-defined idea from Gregory v. Ashcroft that if state decisions are going to be displaced, it has to be pretty specific), Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan transit Authority eviscerated almost all substance that the Tenth has accrued over the intervening years. It may indeed be the case that the Tenth Amendment makes no sense.

    Anyway, all of that only applies to Congressional powers anyway. Executive powers aren’t defined by the Constitution at all, and Judicial powers are mostly not defined either (other than the “cases and controversies” requirement).

    If the President declaresd a Day of Prayer, there’s probably nothing legally that can be done about it. Yeah, it’s a violation of the First Amendment. But with much of the President’s powers, there’s nothing you can do other than vote for a different guy next time.

    That’s moot anyway, because the National Day of Prayer was an act of Congress. Yeah, it’s unconstitutional. I’m not arguing that. What I am arguing is that there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about it (other than voting for people that will repeal it), because unless tax dollars are being spent on it, you’d have a hard time finding a plaintiff with standing to sue.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com/ Kullervo

    Well, Ebombuse, the Supreme Court has consistently disagreed with you since McCulloch v. Maryland, which is pretty much one of the most fundamental cases on the powers of the different branches of governments. The Bank of the United States was not explicitly one of the powers enumerated, but it fell under necessary and proper.

    You can disagree all you want, but “explicitly” is explicitly not in there, for exactly that reason. Again, that was the problem with the Articles of Confederation. Again, see McCulloch v. Maryland. You are at liberty to think McCulloch was wrongly decided, but in order to do that you’d have to overturn so much of the law that has been decided since 1819 that our governmental system wouldn;t even make sense anymore..

    Necessary and proper isn’t a blank check to do anything and everything, but it does vastly expand on the enumerated powers, and really makes the “explicit” idea make no sense.

    As far as appealing to the Tenth Amendment (you said ninth, but that one is about non-enumerated rights; the Tenth is the one about delegated powers and the states), that’s a hazy proposition at best. It was probably the weakest amendment from the beginning (being basically a truism), and with a few notable exceptions (like commandeering of the state legislature/executive a la New York v. United States and Printz v. United States; and the basic ill-defined idea from Gregory v. Ashcroft that if state decisions are going to be displaced, it has to be pretty specific), Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan transit Authority eviscerated almost all substance that the Tenth has accrued over the intervening years. It may indeed be the case that the Tenth Amendment makes no sense.

    Anyway, all of that only applies to Congressional powers anyway. Executive powers aren’t defined by the Constitution at all, and Judicial powers are mostly not defined either (other than the “cases and controversies” requirement).

    If the President declaresd a Day of Prayer, there’s probably nothing legally that can be done about it. Yeah, it’s a violation of the First Amendment. But with much of the President’s powers, there’s nothing you can do other than vote for a different guy next time.

    That’s moot anyway, because the National Day of Prayer was an act of Congress. Yeah, it’s unconstitutional. I’m not arguing that. What I am arguing is that there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about it (other than voting for people that will repeal it), because unless tax dollars are being spent on it, you’d have a hard time finding a plaintiff with standing to sue.

  • John

    I suppose they should take the actual sentence “certain inalienable rights endowed by our creator” out of the constitution then. I would say that is quite an offensive statement to a non-religous person if you ask me. Oh wait, that would be unconstitutional wouldn’t it? The problem with this suit is the counter-argument could easily win the case by saying prayer could be to any “gods” or the “god” of self. Yes, people can actually pray to themselves. So, since it’s universal, and non-discriminatory, the suit will be a waste of tax payers money and the day will continue to be recognized by all Americans in their own way.

  • John

    I suppose they should take the actual sentence “certain inalienable rights endowed by our creator” out of the constitution then. I would say that is quite an offensive statement to a non-religous person if you ask me. Oh wait, that would be unconstitutional wouldn’t it? The problem with this suit is the counter-argument could easily win the case by saying prayer could be to any “gods” or the “god” of self. Yes, people can actually pray to themselves. So, since it’s universal, and non-discriminatory, the suit will be a waste of tax payers money and the day will continue to be recognized by all Americans in their own way.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I suppose they should take the actual sentence “certain inalienable rights endowed by our creator” out of the constitution then.

    We don’t need to, since there is no such phrase in the Constitution.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    The problem with this suit is the counter-argument could easily win the case by saying prayer could be to any “gods” or the “god” of self. Yes, people can actually pray to themselves. So, since it’s universal, and non-discriminatory, the suit will be a waste of tax payers money and the day will continue to be recognized by all Americans in their own way.

    Except it’s not universal or non-discriminatory because not all of us hold a notion of god.

    And, please read the Constitution.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    The problem with this suit is the counter-argument could easily win the case by saying prayer could be to any “gods” or the “god” of self. Yes, people can actually pray to themselves. So, since it’s universal, and non-discriminatory, the suit will be a waste of tax payers money and the day will continue to be recognized by all Americans in their own way.

    Except it’s not universal or non-discriminatory because not all of us hold a notion of god.

    And, please read the Constitution.