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.
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: