Obama and Prayer: A Small Step in the Right Direction

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.

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.

  • Scotlyn

    A whitehouse Armstrong moment?

    Mr President, – “That’s one small step for amen, one giant leap for mankind.” :)

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Though I could have done without the capitalizing (as a colleague says, “I only spell it with a capital N when I’m talking about the magazine”), considering that it’s the law (Public Law 100-307), I like this statement:

    we continue to live in a Nation where people of all faiths can worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience.

  • Leum

    I can’t be certain, but I think capitalizing nation is a government tradition/policy/Thing That is Done. I recently read some Department of the Interior documents that capitalized the word every single time it came up, using it in place of “US” or “the United States.”

  • Jormungund

    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.

    He was never a professor of anything. He was merely a lecturer. There is a world of difference between lecturers and professors. Please don’t propagate the myth that Obama was ever a professor, it is just untrue.
    And yes, I do know that Obama once misspoke (or lied?) and claimed that he was once a professor. This isn’t a big deal, it is just a small untruth that doesn’t need to be repeated by yet another person.

  • Leum

    Jormungund, I attend an slac so I’m not totally up on university politics: what is the difference between a professor and a lecturer?

  • Alex Weaver

    Jormungund, I attend an slac so I’m not totally up on university politics: what is the difference between a professor and a lecturer?

    I believe professors have more job security and are expected to produce research. None of which is really relevant to the point that he taught Constitutional law at the college level.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    And though I don’t know what the policy was at his school, in many anybody who teaches is “a professor” even if he’s not “Professor Obama”.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    In fact, after a brief moment of research, I found this UC statement:

    UC Law School statement: The Law School has received many media requests about Barack Obama, especially about his status as “Senior Lecturer.” From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year. Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track. The title of Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer, which signifies adjunct status. Like Obama, each of the Law School’s Senior Lecturers have high-demand careers in politics or public service, which prevent full-time teaching. Several times during his 12 years as a professor in the Law School, Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined. (see http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/was_barack_obama_really_a_constitutional_law.html FactCheck.org)

  • Jormungund

    Thanks for clearing this up The Ridger. I remember reading that Obama was not a professor, but I did not understand that he held a position equivalent to that of a non-tenured professor. In light of this new information, I’ll drop my complaint as merely being a semantics issue.
    Perhaps I wrongly assumed that he was like the lecturers that I have encountered at my school. They are usually barely competent in their field and are always a poor substitute for an actual professor. But, if Obama was the equivalent to a non-tenure track professor and was even offered full professorship positions, then it seems unjustified to complain about him technically not being a professor.

  • shv

    First of all I really like obama vs bush. Bush was an idiot imo.

    But in this case I am really not concerned what the UC statement was. For anybody who has worked in academia knows what a lecturer is. They are not professors. They are not untenured professors either. A lecturer is often given as a junior teaching post to someone who either does not merit an assistant professor post due to either not having a PhD yet or having not published sufficiently. Both these fit Obamas CV.

    He is a very smart guy no doubt but his CV simply does lack the PhD or substantial law practice so I would find it incredible if he was not in politics that he would have been offered tenure. I would eat my shoe.

    For those of you who dont know, Obama has a JD, and while this is referred to as a doctorate it is quite simply not. It used to be called the LLB and still is in the UK. It is a postgraduate 3 years bachelors degree. A JD or LLB is the degree to practice law. For those academically inclined either a JD or LLB is required to enter a masters degree in law (the LLM). The LLM may then be used to enter the doctorate of law (LLD or PhD).

    So while i think he is a great president the press would be well served to report a more truthful version of his background. It is very thin by presidential standards, but again I think he is doing a good job by the standards of recent times.