This past Thursday was the “National Day of Prayer”, another symptom of the ongoing infiltration of religion into America’s originally secular government. The National Day of Prayer was first established in the 1950s, another spasm of the reflexive Christianism of that paranoid era. Predictably, it was soon hijacked by right-wing ideologues who use it to push their own highly partisan, extremely conservative version of Christianity and seek to prevent believers of other denominations from taking part.
If you want to know what America’s founders thought of melding religion with the state, take the words of Thomas Jefferson, whom I’ll quote from my own previous post on this occasion:
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.
Of course, we have a Democratic President now – and moreover, one who was raised by an atheist mother and was a professor of constitutional law. Even so, not everything changes overnight. President Obama himself has had a mixed record on church-state separation, and his action on the National Day of Prayer this year continues this trend.
President Obama did recognize the day, but rather than make a spectacle of it, he signed a brief proclamation and that was all. He didn’t hold a large religious service in the White House, as George W. Bush did; nor did he attend, or send any representative to attend, the four-hour (!) program on Capitol Hill organized by James Dobson. Dobson groused bitterly about the snub, which wins Obama points in my book.
Of course, I would have preferred no official religious service at all. But political change rarely comes so quickly, even after an election as transformative as the last one. We still have a long way to go to disentangle the mixing of church and state that took place during the Bush administration (and before), but President Obama’s actions were a small step in the right direction.