May 14, 2009
Storefront churches, stone cathedrals, synagogues, temples and mosques break the secular landscape of the United States. Their presence stands as a witness to the voices of believers raised to God in prayer. In fact, recent polls claim that 92 percent of Americans believe in God or an Ultimate Being and nearly six out of ten Americans pray every day. (Jacqueline L. Salmom, “Most Americans Believe in Higher Power, Poll Finds,”
Washington Post, June 24, 2008).
Traveling to the Holy Land aboard his Alitalia charter jet on May 8, Pope Benedict XVI spoke on the power of prayer. He said, “As believers, Christians are convinced of the power of prayer. It opens the world to God, and we are convinced that God listens and can work in history. And I think that, if millions of believers pray, this is truly a force that can have an influence and advance the cause of peace.”
In the United States, this belief in the power of prayer gave birth to a national day of prayer. In 1952, President Harry Truman first established it. Then, President Reagan signed a resolution in 1988 to make the first Thursday in May as the National Day of Prayer each year. Every president thereafter has done the same. This year, President Obama proclaimed May 7 as our National Day of Prayer. He called “upon Americans to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings and to ask for God's continued guidance, grace, and protection for this land that we love.”
Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush used to mark the day with a White House observance. Under previous administrations, the White House hosted an interfaith service. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders were invited for an event at the East Room. This year, the President chose not to have such an event.
Some people found this decision an occasion to praise the President for distancing himself from our National Day of Prayer. The prayer service at the White House offends some because it is a public act of religion. It disturbs others because it is not inclusive enough. On the other hand, there were those who expressed disappointment that the President did not seize the opportunity to unite people of so many different faiths in a common act acknowledging our need for help from God.
Lost somewhere in the cross fires of the discussion was another decision that the President made. Near the end of Bush's second term, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Madison. They petitioned the judge to put an end to the custom of prayer proclamations issued by presidents and governors. They view the day as disenfranchising the millions of Americans who do not believe in God or do not pray. Obviously, they do not follow the polls about belief and religion in America.
The Obama administration has asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to dismiss the case against proclaiming public days of prayer. As the President said in his proclamation, “Throughout our Nation's history, Americans have come together in moments of great challenge and uncertainty to humble themselves in prayer.” His words ring true at this moment of challenge and crisis for our country.
The real discontent with our National Day of Prayer is much wider than opposition to a public display of religion. The day is too cozy a relationship between Church and State for those who wish to put a chasm between the two. In a word, the opposition to the day springs from the desire to silence the voice of religiously committed individuals from the public discussions of major issues.
Since 1978, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of 12,000 atheists and agnostics, has been working to keep Church and State separate
. Nontract #6 of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. states: “Fundamentalist Protestants and right-wing Catholics would impose their narrow morality on the rest of us, resisting women's rights, freedom for religious minorities and unbelievers, gay and lesbian rights, and civil rights for all. History shows us that only harm comes of uniting church and state.”
Such a strong characterization of religious people fails to see that, when it comes to Catholics and the Catholic approach to common good, Catholics offer the wisdom of a 2,000 year tradition of ethical reflection. When speaking to the issues of public concern, Catholics bring their contribution based on the natural law. The natural law knows no religious boundaries. It is open to all. It is gross misstatement of truth to label arguments based on reason as simply the religious convictions of the narrow-minded.
We cannot let some make religion today the dividing social issue that race was in America in the past. We are religiously more diverse today than in the last century. Presently there are more American Muslims than there are American Episcopalians, Jews or Presbyterians. Los Angeles, with more than three hundred temples, has welcomed the largest variety of Buddhists anywhere.
With such religious diversity, a National Day of Prayer is a blessing for our country. Prayer places our country in the hands of the God “who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Prayer that opens our hearts to God also opens our hearts to others, whatever their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Prayer is truly a power beyond politics.