On your knees

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."

  • carla

    Carla the atheist here . . . it’s precisely things like a NDP that make me break out in hives. If you want to pray, go right ahead; knock yourself out. but to declare it by act of congress, and establish it, and appoint Ollie North the chair of it, well, I surely don’t feel included. I feel rather explicitly EXcluded, if you want to know, and I resent it. It’s bad enough that I have to use money with deities (and, yes, that does bother me–not nearly as much as, say, torture of Iraqi prisoners bothers me, but it DOES bother me) and have to know that, whatever my personal qualities, the fact that I’m an atheist means I couldn’t be elected dogcatcher, but things like this just seem like gratuitous smacks in the face.

  • none

    This being the National Day of Prayer, it’s an appropriate time to point out to those who call themselves “christians” Jesus’ explicit instructions on prayer, Matthew 6:5&6, the gist of which is:
    “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites…go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father…”

  • Nate

    Though Gibson’s family moved to Australia when he was 12, he was born in the US and retains his citizenship. In which state do you suppose he’ll run for governor?

  • Dave

    Today, to commemorate the National Day of Prayer, I prayed that it would be revealed that George W. Bush was using Saddam’s torture chambers to torture and brutalize innocent Iraqis–and I turned on my computer and found out it had come to pass!! There is a God!

  • BFDiehl

    Though Gibson’s family moved to Australia when he was 12, he was born in the US and retains his citizenship.
    I recall reading a profile of Mel long ago (like 20 years ago or more) that claimed that the reason the Gibson family left the US is that the old man didn’t want his sons to be at risk of going to Viet Nam when they reached draft age. Anyone know if that was true?

  • Grumpy

    Re: Mel Gibson
    Let’s see… moved to Australia in 1968 at age 12. If he was worried about the draft, Papa Gibson must’ve had some foresight. Or lack of it, since the US left Vietnam just before Mel turned 18.
    And since Australia had troops in Vietnam thru 1972, and a draft to boot, I can’t see how emigrating there would be a wise move.

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    Let us pray (but not, you know, prayer per se, but, um, celebrate a recognition that a lot of Americans pray. Yeah, that’s it.)

    Slacktivist has an amusing post on the National Day of Prayer, another one of those mid-Fifties Congressional mandates that can be summed up as the “‘Dude, we’re not Commies, ok?’

  • BFDiehl

    Papa Gibson must’ve had some foresight. Or lack of it…
    Hey, just because “reason” looks ridiculous in retrospect doesn’t mean he didn’t hold it, especially a loon like Hutton Gibson. Also, was it Australia? I seem to recall that New Zealand was in the story…

  • Evan

    Fred, what do you mean by “Seeger-ish”?
    The national day of prayer doesn’t actually bother me all that much; it’s not like anyone is forced to participate. (The “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance grates on me far, far more.)
    What I do wonder is why we need another day that “encourages Americans of every faith to give thanks for God’s many blessings”. Didn’t Abraham Lincoln already give us a day for that in November?

  • ricky fitz

    When will the god-fearers realize that their religious freedoms are the product of secular tolerance?

  • ricky fitz

    When will the god-fearers realize that their religious freedoms are the product of secular tolerance?

  • skydiver

    Check out my profile of Shirley Dobson, chairperson of the National Day of Prayer.

  • skydiver

    Check out my profile of Shirley Dobson, chairperson of the National Day of Prayer.

  • Patience

    10:35, Paul Begala made the exact same point– posting the complete quote up on the screen– during the opening of “Hardball” today, pointing out that it’s slightly… unseemly… for the commander-in-chief to be appearing on TV tonight praying in public.

  • PK Dick

    Excellent post.
    Some more reflections here.
    One question I have about the history of NPD is how it was celebrated before 1988, when it was established by law that it occur on the first Thursday of May (thanks to Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan). Before then, the President was required to select a day of the year for that purpose. I wonder whether that led to a reduced commitment (i.e. just another bureaucratic scheduling issue).
    According to this history, a National Prayer Committee (i.e. lobbying group) was formed in 1972.

  • ploeg

    “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
    — Matthew 6:5-6

  • ploeg

    Apologies to 10:35 AM, I glossed over that post.

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  • Nell Lancaster

    what do you mean by “Seeger-ish”?
    My question exactly; thanks for asking, Evan.
    Fred?

  • Fred

    The phrase “Seeger-ish” is Justice Breyer’s.
    During arguments for the Pledge of Allegiance case, Breyer suggested that the phrase “under God” in the pledge might be taken to refer to “this kind of very comprehensive supreme being, Seeger-type thing.”
    The reference is to a 1965 case, United States v. Seeger, which had to do with religiously based conscientious objector status. Daniel Seeger said he was a conscientious objector, but he said his objection did not necessarily arise from a belief in a supreme being per se, but rather from a belief in a “supreme reality.”
    Here’s how the Constitutional Law for a Changing America summarizes the case:
    The law required that the religious belief be based on faith in a Supreme Being. Seeger declared that he was conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form by reason of his “religious” belief; that he preferred to leave the question as to his belief in a Supreme Being open, “rather than answer `yes’ or `no’”; that his “skepticism or disbelief in the existence of God” did “not necessarily mean lack of faith in anything whatsoever”; that his was a “belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes, and a religious faith in a purely ethical creed.” Although he was found to hold his position against war in good faith, the Selective Service System denied him reclassification for failure to meet the “Supreme Being” requirement.
    Seeger was called for military service. When he refused to comply with the order, he was charged with refusal to be inducted into the military.
    A federal appeals court eventually overturned his conviction and the Supreme Court upheld that decision, in Seeger’s favor. In a concurring opinion, Justice Douglas wrote that the religious requirement of the CO statute only made constitutional sense if “we construe the words “Supreme Being” to include the cosmos, as well as an anthropomorphic entity.”
    That’s Breyer’s sense — the cosmos, some vague anthropomorphic entity, whatever.

  • drieux just drieux

    first off – the gibson concern – it is interesting to hear americans talk now that back in 1968 they had any idea that Nixon would be the Peace Candidate and retreat from vietnam. WOW. Talk about cultural re-write. For those who are watching the current badly played ‘anti-anti-war’ games – it would be useful to recall the vietnam era in its actual context. Back when americans like Karl Rove and the rest of the chickenhawks were smart enough to avoid being draft bait. So whether or not Mel Gibson’s dad actually took him to australia to avoid the draft threat is an interesting speculation, if and only if, people want to deal with the americans who stayed in the USofA and opted to avoid military service.
    This then brings us to the current growing crisis of faith. How is it that the current Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence is General Boykin – the so called ‘evangelical christian’ who considers Islam an Idolatry – and the reality check moment that the current administration failed to keep a lid on the prisoner abuse case in Abu Ghraib Prison. The second major outbreak of prisoner abuse cases in Iraq. Maybe the folks who are trying to turn the USofA out of being a free republic and into some sort of ‘christian nation’ devoid of law and morality may want to think hard and fast about what they are trading what for what.

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