We don’t need the National Day of Prayer. It promotes American Christian Nationalism that pushes groupthink in the name of religion.
History of the National Day of Prayer
In 1775, the Continental Congress called for “a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” the forerunner of our American Thanksgiving. Various American Presidents have likewise called for solemn assemblies dedicated to prayer. According to the National Day Calendar:
In the early 1950s, an evangelical movement called for Congress and the President to proclaim a National Day of Prayer. The movement grew and a young leader, Evangelist Billy Graham, led services for approximately 20,000 on the steps of the Capitol on February 3, 1952. Later that year, Congress proclaimed a joint resolution for a National Day of Prayer. President Harry S. Truman proclaimed a National Day of Prayer to be observed on July 4, 1952. Each year since that date, Americans have observed the day in their own way. The observance moved to the first Thursday in May by President Ronald Reagan and has been proclaimed each year since.
Americianity in the 1950s
The 1950s saw an era of Cold War and McCarthyism that contrasted “godless Communism” with “faithful Democracy.” World War II had galvanized the United States and rallied the people to oppose the evil and genocidal Third Reich. Now, good Christian men and women needed to oppose the Russian threat. The government employed American religious zeal as a major weapon against its enemy. To immunize yourself from the Communist witch hunts, you needed to be a person of faith.
In 1954, President Eisenhower added the phrase “under God” to the US Pledge of Allegiance. Kids had been saying this pledge for over sixty years at that point, with no reference to God. But now, under the Communist threat, Americans needed to be reminded that this “one nation, indivisible” was also “under God.”
In 1956, Congress adopted a new national motto, “In God We Trust,” to be stamped on all US money. President Eisenhower signed it into law, replacing the old motto, E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). Today, the National Day of Prayer comes right on the heels of In God We Trust Day, April 22.
Today, many American Christians would love to see a renewal of 1950s values. This nostalgia is what made Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan so popular. But that “simpler time” also celebrated Jim Crow laws and Communist witch hunts. We don’t need the National Day of Prayer because it came out of such an era that promoted groupthink in the name of religion.
In my article, “The Idol of Americianity,” I employ a phrase that notes the danger of mixing US patriotism and religion. American Christian nationalism gains ground through subtle patriotic gestures like having the US flag in our sanctuaries and church yards and pledging to the US and Christian flags. Patriotic songs and nationalistic prayers echo in our sacred halls. These things evidence the true object of nationalistic faith—the idolatrous American eagle. In my April 2022 article, I wrote:
For as long as I can remember, growing up in southern evangelical churches, I heard people saying, “If only we’d overturn Roe v. Wade,” or “If only we’d bring back prayer in schools,” or “If only stores and restaurants were still closed on Sundays…” In all these things, what they’re really saying is, “If only we could return to the days when Christians were in such a majority that we could legislate morality for everyone else.”
Every year that I attended National Day of Prayer ceremonies, I heard comments from the Religious Right, like the ones above. I heard nationalistic prayers proclaiming America to be the “greatest country on earth.” Prayers that called America to return to her God-fearing (read Conservative) roots. American Christian Nationalists use the National Day of Prayer, See You at the Pole, and other religio-political events as annual public pulpits to promote their agenda. In short, Americianity is when conservative religion capitalizes on people’s patriotism to push its program. And it’s highly effective at doing so. Take a look at today’s US Supreme Court and recent laws in Florida to see what I mean. The National Day of Prayer is an excellent tool to confuse people’s politics with religion and to promote conservative Christianity.
An Ecumenical Event?
You may counter, “I’ve attended lovely National Day of Prayer gatherings that were ecumenical and beautiful.” I’m sure that’s true. Some diverse and forward-thinking communities offer National Day of Prayer gatherings where people of all religious backgrounds can pray together. But this is far from the norm. In most of America, it’s everything I’ve discussed above. Rare are the times when this day is used as a way to bring people of different faiths together. Generally, it’s an occasion for chest-thumping Evangelical dominance.
I must raise the question of whether Christians should gather in the public arena for prayer at all. In my article, “Should I Attend See You at the Pole?” I write about the difference between corporate and public prayer. Prayer in a religious setting is one thing, while prayer in secular setting is something else.
Jesus condemned those who did acts of piety for everyone to see. Instead, he tells us to do so in private. Go into your inner room, he says. It can literally mean a private place in your home. Or, it could be a place of corporate worship, like a sanctuary. Or it might simply mean going inside your heart for internal prayer. In any case, Jesus warned against public prayer to be seen by people.
In short, Jesus blesses private and corporate prayer. I doubt very much that he would condone public and political gatherings for the purpose of prayer. Make no mistake—the National Day of Prayer is a political event, thinly disguised by the veil of religion.
Separation of Church and State
As a former pastor, I have offered many public prayers at National Day of Prayer gatherings. And I regret every one of them. That’s because, as an erstwhile Baptist, I found myself in violation of one of our dearest principles, the separation of church and state. Yes, Baptists have historically been proponents of religious liberty. Baptist forebears would have balked at the idea of a state-sponsored day of prayer because it elevates religion to the public sector. It isn’t the government’s prerogative or right to promote religion. Sure, one could argue that the National Day of Prayer is accessible to people of all faiths—but what about all the non-theists and atheists out there? It’s their government, too! And their government has no business promoting religion at all.
Why We Don’t Need the National Day of Prayer
If you’re a Christian, you probably wouldn’t want the government promoting a Muslim, Hindu, or Wiccan day of prayer. So, you should oppose any National Day of Prayer, regardless of religion or sect. Christians don’t have the right to dominate the religious landscape, just because they are the majority. Atheists have just as much right to their non-religion as you have a right to your faith. Non-theistic religions like Buddhism and Taoism likewise get marginalized when the government promotes prayer.
Sure, you can read Bible passages where Jewish kings and other leaders declared national days of prayer and fasting for the people of Israel. But that was a different form of government—a theocratic monarchy. But the United States is a secular nation, with a secular Constitution. The government has no right to declare a day of prayer. Regardless of the fact that such an event promotes no particular religion, such a day does promote religion in general. And a secular government should never do that.
We don’t need the National Day of Prayer. People can go to their own religious institutions to pray. They can pray in their homes. We don’t need the government to promote religion or ask people to appeal to God. If you’re a person of faith, you’re probably praying anyway. And if you’re not a person of faith, no government-sponsored prayer day should coerce you to appeal to a god in whom you don’t believe.