The recent announcement that the federal government will be paying to live stream a preacher who believes that same-sex marriage is Satan’s war on the family raises a number of interesting questions about the relevance of the National Day of Prayer. Why would observing a National Day of Prayer be a priority for a government trying to operate in the midst of the sequestration? Why would a person with such divisive views, and a history of such incendiary comments, be invited to lead this observance?
Despite the validity of the concerns these questions raise, they ignore the larger importance of a National Day of Prayer. While America celebrates its freedom of religion, it also has a long tradition of turning to God to ask for guidance and blessings.
While the current incarnation of the National Day of Prayer was instituted in 1952, the first mention of such a day in America’s history dates back to 1775 and the Continental Congress. The Congress called on Americans for a day of fasting and mediation. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson would all issue subsequent calls to prayer and emphasized the importance of, specifically Christian, religious faith.
The importance of payer would come to the forefront again as America became embroiled in Civil War. Both the North and the South tried to claim the moral high ground and spiritual authority. Religious denominations, like the Methodist Church, split with the country as the issue of slavery tore religious communities apart. President Lincoln refused to assert that he knew God’s will, and instead humbly said that “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” He admitted that God’s will might be opposed to both sides of the conflict, and he called upon the American people to pray for peace.
Some might argue that these dated examples do not bear any relevance on our current debate about the validity of the validity of the National Day of Prayer. They would argue that a day of meditation is a relic of a bygone era that America no longer needs. While today’s America is certainly different from the country of Lincoln’s day, our celebration of the National Day of Prayer has also changed. The earliest National Days of Prayer were understood to be Christian holidays. Despite our freedom or religion, it was generally assumed that most were practicing some form of Christianity. Today, the holiday is celebrated by a host of religions including Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims.
The National Day of Prayer is intended to be a day for all Americans to join together in prayer. It is not intended to punish those who want “freedom from religion” since they can opt not to participate. While the holiday may at times be plagued by embarrassing problems, this does not diminish its validity and importance. Americans should, like Lincoln, use the day as an opportunity to express their humility, and to seek to discern the right path for our nation.