Thursday, May 6, was the National Day of Prayer, an event that has been celebrated in America since 1988. Earlier versions of the same idea of national prayer go back to the early history of the nation and eventually gained momentum during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln signed a Congressional resolution on March 3, 1863, which called for a day of fasting and prayer during the Civil War.
On April 17, 1952, a bill proclaiming an annual National Day of Prayer (NDP) was unanimously passed by both houses of congress. President Truman signed this bill into law. It required the President to select a day for national prayer each year. In 1972 The National Prayer Committee was created, an evangelical Christian organization. The National Day of Prayer Task Force, which now has a major role in the NDP, has become a major project of that committee. In 1988 a bill was introduced in Congress which fixed the annual NDP at the first Thursday in May, thus Thursday, May 6 this year. This bill, Senate Bill 1378, was introduced by Strom Thurmond (R-SC). A matching House version was initiated by Tony Hall, (D-OH). It received broad bipartisan sponsorship and support, and thus became Public Law 100-307. It was signed into law by President Reagan on May 5, 1988. The President commented: "On our National Day of Prayer, then, we join together as people of many faiths to petition God to show us His mercy and His love, to heal our weariness and uphold our hope, that we might live ever mindful of His justice and thankful for His blessing."
This year the White House issued a letter to the nation for the National Day of Prayer. It is worth reading to grasp how broadly defined this law has actually become. With each change of president the application is stretched and altered as the tides shift and move in America.
It all sounds innocent enough but now enter U. S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb who recently ruled that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional. Crabb, a 71-year old veteran of the court, ruled that the law is itself a call to religious action and thus violates the legal separation of church and state. Her logic? The law directs the president to encourage citizens to pray and thus it amounts to a government endorsement of a religious exercise. She wrote that her ruling was not based “on the value of prayer or the millions of Americans who believe in its power.” She reasons that government has no more business encouraging its citizens to pray than to “fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.”
She further wrote in her decision:
In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual’s decision on whether and when to pray.
So what will come of Judge Crabb’s ruling? Well, in the face of protest from almost every quarter, including the Congress and the White House, Judge Crabb put the enforcement of her ruling on hold for this year, pending an appeal. This meant that thousands of prayer events went on as planned on Thursday. But advocates for the separation of church and state will not give up on opposing a National Day of Prayer.
I have several responses to this judge and her ruling. Some of them will likely bother almost everyone who reads this post.
1. Judge Crabb is not entirely wrong. She is not a moron, a disgrace or a Marxist because of her ruling, as some have openly charged. There is actual legal precedent for her ruling. Separation does not mean religion has no role in public life but it does mean that government should not favor any particular religion. The question here will increasingly be this: “Should government favor the Christian religion in any meaningful sense?”
This is where the argument gets interesting, or at least it does to me. There can be no real doubt that it was evangelicals who pushed President Reagan to sign the current law mandating a particular date as the National Day of Prayer. Such evangelicals need to understand that there is a fine line between mandating what they desire for the entire nation by law, in terms of a religious event formally embraced by the government, and what they desire will happen in the culture at large. The question here is whether Congress can, or should, make a law mandating the President to support such a specially designated NDP.
What will eventually happen, and already is happening to a large extent, is that this type of event will become more and more pluralistic as our culture becomes more and more religiously diverse. This is all but inevitable. What if we have a President who is not a Christian in any sense of the term and he simply does not wish to support this “Christian” day? Is he violating the law? How sincere, better yet how consistent, is Congress in supporting such a law? And do not tell me this is not “Christian” when it is Christians who promote it, fight for it and debate about it.
2. It has always amazed me that so many Christians seem so oblivious to the simple fact that we can declare any day we want as a national day of prayer for all Christians and we can do this anytime we want to declare it. There is no law stopping us from praying and no law stopping us from doing so publicly and with all other Christians on any day we choose. The issue is whether or not the government should sponsor such a day legally.
3. I believe the higher courts, and maybe the Supreme Court, will eventually rule on this decision. I think they will not support Judge Crabb because this law is rather unlikely to be deemed a clear violation of the establishment clause. But even if the courts upheld Judge Crabb I have to say that I would not lose one bit of sleep about it. The real battle for the souls of men and women is not here and the sooner people realize this the better we all will be as Christians and churches.
I have been saying the same thing for twenty-five years. We decry our national lack of prayer, pass laws mandating it and then still do not pray. Following 9/11 people prayed like never before in the past forty years but within two months they stopped. Every poll I have read supports this observation. And if your church calls a meeting for prayer how many people come? And how long will they pray? Be honest. The problem is not in Washington or in Madison, where Judge Crabb issued her controversial ruling, but inside the church. We simply do not pray as Christians and we do not, on almost every other day of the year, pray with other Christians about much of anything. We can’t event talk to each other with civility in most cases much less learn to prayer together.
4. The reactions to Judge Crabb’s ruling are sad and disgusting, as they always are in these church-state battles. Critics, including some Christians, called Judge Crabb a Marxist, a moron and a disgrace. One person wrote that he was praying God would remove her from office. Another warned that she was headed to hell. (What a surprise, a Christian telling someone they think is liberal that they are going to hell!) GOP Representative Ted Poe of Texas took to the floor of the House to taunt: “What’s next Judge Crabb? You going to ban Thanksgiving and Christmas as national holidays?” I am just glad Congressman Poe does not represent my district.
If you want to get a huge emotional reaction in America then start talking about banning prayer in some public way. People come out of the woodwork screaming, yelling and writing every kind of nonsense under the sun. Most have no comprehension of the intricate debates that we have had about the separation of church and state and why this separation is so unique and so vital to what America is as a nation. In fact, most Christians seem to have very little comprehension of how important this separation is to the work of the real mission of the church. The only disciples I want to see us make in the years ahead are those who freely choose to follow Christ with no support or opposition from the government.
While religious pluralism is growing more and more in the wider culture, and when the number of people who have no use for Christianity is plainly on the rise as well, we should be slow to attempt to rescue the culture by means of government interference. If God moved his people to pray they wouldn’t need government support. They would pray. What I long for, quite personally, is a great outpouring of grace that leads Christians of all sorts to join in prayer and Bible study all across America forming a huge throng of Christians who love one another and care about the missional mandate of Christ as one people. When this happens we just might see the culture actually changed, by changing human hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit. Come to think of it this would happen without any legal support whatsoever.