In 1952, Congress passed a law establishing the National Day of Prayer as an annual religious observance.
Quick: give me another sentence that uses the words "Congress," "law," "establish" and "religion."
The NDP is another example of what Solicitor General Ted "Arkansas Project" Olson might call "ceremonial deism." Despite it's apparent flouting of the First Amendment, the NDP is seen as mostly harmless — religious in such a squishy, Seeger-type, lowest-common-denominator way that it only offends those Americans at the far ends of the religiosity bell curve.
One aspect of this annual pageant is the selection of an "honorary chairman" by the nonprofit committee that promotes the affair. The role, like the day itself, is largely ceremonial — a kind of grand marshal for the parade.
The honorary chairman, ideally, should be someone who embodies the civil religious, next-to-of-course god-america-i-love-you values of the NDP. The person should be prominent, widely admired — a hero.
Pat Tillman would have been a good choice — a man who walked away from fame and a million-dollar career to serve his country. Except of course that he wasn't religious and now, as his brother said at his memorial service, "he's fucking dead."
John McCain, likewise, is a popular war hero, but he has never mastered the kind of platitudinous piety the role requires.
Mel Gibson is, alas, not an American. And besides, Mel has never been convicted of lying to Congress to cover up the covert funding of terrorists.
Thus for honorary chairman, the National Day of Prayer organizers chose the only appropriate man for the job: Oliver North.
Despite the pervasively sectarian appearance of the National Day of Prayer Web site, the day is intended to be inclusive of "people of all faiths." All faiths, that is, who can stomach Oliver North as an honorary member of the civil religious clergy.
I was willing to at least try to take this thing seriously, but Oliver North? Couldn't they at least pretend this event had something to do with genuine prayer or faith? Couldn't they even try to be at least a little bit subtle in wielding their piety as a partisan political club? Oliver freaking North.
On the other hand, Ollie's not quite as frightening and shriekingly partisan as the official "chairman" for the National Day of Prayer: Shirley Dobson.
Yet here it is, the National Day of Prayer — the one day set aside for George W. Bush to talk to God instead of the other way 'round. In the presidential proclamation (.pdf here) declaring today a National Day of Prayer,
Michael Gerson President Bush writes:
In his first Inaugural Address, President George Washington prayed that the Almighty would preserve the freedom of all Americans. On the National Day of Prayer, we celebrate that freedom and America's great tradition of prayer. The National Day of Prayer encourages Americans of every faith to give thanks for God's many blessings and to pray for each other and our Nation.
While a bit squishy and Seeger-ish, that's well expressed. And the attempt to score political points in support of the war in Iraq that follows is tastefully done. (Note to Gerson: if you must compose these proclamations in Microsoft Word, turn on smart quotes.)
Newspapers across the country will be recognizing the NDP and the events planned in their communities. Reporters lacking seniority will be assigned to write articles on the day and on "America's great tradition of prayer" in which they will try to match the civil religious tone of the president's proclamation.
At The (Del.) News Journal, where I work, reporter Patty Talorico drew the short straw. Her article strikes a nice balance — taking people's faith seriously and treating them with respect while acknowledging the diversity of religious traditions in Delaware.
Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's NDP declaration invited all Delawareans "to pray in their own way," and Talorico's article captures that spirit. She interviews a Catholic woman who prays the Rosary. She interviews a Jewish woman who prays to Yahweh. She interviews a Muslim college professor who prays to Allah. She interviews Dick Cheney, who prays to himself.
(That last one was a joke, of course, everyone knows Dick Cheney doesn't talk to reporters.)
I find the idea of an official National Day of Prayer, like the "under God" clause in the Pledge of Allegiance, a bit hard to swallow. Either it's a serious affirmation of religion — in which case it seems to violate the Establishment Clause, or else it's a hollow exercise in civil religion — in which case it seems to violate serious religious faith.
Prayer is a Good Thing. It's far too important to allow it to be highjacked in the service of hollow pieties and political campaigns, so I'm not a fan of the National Day of Prayer.
Still, I look at the proclamation from President George W. Bush and those words force me to drop to my knees in fervent prayer. Not the words of the proclamation itself, mind you, I mean the words "President George W. Bush."