National Day of Prayer--and Reason

Thursday, 1 May 2003

The first Thursday in May is designated annually as the National Day of Prayer in the United States. The theme for 2003 is taken from Proverbs 14:34: "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people." The official National Day of Prayer Web site ( gives a brief history of the National Day of Prayer in the U.S., a prayer for the nation composed by Luis Palau, and some words by Shirley Dobson, NDP coordinator, as well as many patriotic images and comments. One of Mrs. Dobson's remarks is this: "We have lost many of our freedoms in America because we have been asleep. I feel if we do not become involved and support the annual National Day or Prayer, we could end up forfeiting this freedom, too." Since I doubt seriously that she is offering a critique of the USA Patriot Act, I can only assume that she's referring to "losing" those (few) elements of the right-wing social agenda that are no longer permissible, at least until the current reactionary Supreme Court overturns them: organized prayer in public schools, racial integration of schools (on the way out), affirmative action in the workplace (almost gone), and perhaps the ban on assault weapons.

Aside from this allusion to identifying the right-wing agenda with the will of God, another interesting attribute of the Web site is that I could find no mention anywhere of prayer for other nations, world leaders or organizations, refugees, or anyone else who is not a true-blue American. True, it's a National Day of Prayer, but isn't it the obligation of nations to live peacefully with their neighbors? Or does that just apply to Muslim dictators? At any rate, I would like to have seen some indication that the religious right has a clue that the U.S. is not the only country on the planet that God cares about.

The Web site of the National Association of Evangelicals is somewhat better (, focusing more on the need for repentance and fasting in response to our nation's (unnamed) sins. Under the rubric of Gratitude, they offer this prayer: "We are thanking God for the minimal loss of life in removing Saddam Hussein from power and for the freedom the Iraqi people now have to form their own government." There was a minimal loss of American and British lives, assuming 150 dead is considered minimal, but the same cannot be said of Iraqi lives, both soldiers and civilians, whose losses number in the thousands. As for the freedom the Iraqis have to form their own government, there is some debate about that, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already decreed that an Islamic theocratic state is unacceptable. I'm not in favor of such a government, either, but on the other hand, forcing another unacceptable government on the people of Iraq might not be a great improvement. The situation in Iraq is something that is clearly a continuing cause for prayer.

There's no doubt that the National Day of Prayer is observed primarily, if not quite exclusively, by evangelical Christians. The Philadelphia Inquirer describes it as "a mega-event on the evangelical Christian calendar." However, lest anyone think that the National Day of Prayer is for Christians only, the Orthodox Union, representing many Orthodox Jews, plans to participate. They comment on their Web site ( "In the solemn circumstances of a 'National Day of Prayer,' the top professional of the Orthodox Union declared that Islamic fundamentalism and its belief in killing in God's name is chillul Hashem - desecration of God's name; expressed strong support for the Bush Administration's policies regarding Iraq; and described the numbing pain felt by Orthodox Jews over the terrorism unleashed on Israel." There is no mention of the pain felt by the Palestinians over the terrorism unleashed on Palestine. We can certainly agree in condemning those Islamic fundamentalists who claim to kill in God's name, but in whose name did the U.S. go to war in Iraq, and to whom were so many Americans praying for victory over their enemies?

Opponents of a nationally designated day of prayer, as well as some proponents of the separation of church and state, have called for the day to be celebrated instead as a National Day of Reason (see The organizers of this event attempted unsuccessfully to get President Bush to designate 1 May 2003 a National Day of Reason, stating in part that "the foundational documents of our great nation were born of the Enlightenment, incorporating, for the first time in history a commitment to the principles of reason, tolerance, democracy, and human rights." In a post-modern world, it may be somewhat anachronistic to put too much stress on the values of the Enlightenment. After all, Enlightenment thinking was adopted in large measure, and adapted as well, by the Fundamentalist movement around the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, a call to remember the principles of reason, tolerance, democracy, and human rights is welcome at this point in history.

Rather than a National Day of Prayer, perhaps progressive Christians would do better to observe the annual World Day of Prayer, an ecumenical observance organized by women (but I'm sure they don't mind if men join in!), observed on the first Friday in March (see On the other hand, there are undoubtedly many from a more prophetic background who see value in offering an alternative to the right-wing sentiments of too many who try to turn the day of prayer into God's endorsement of their beliefs and policies.

It seems to me that regardless of government sponsorship--which is always suspect when it comes to religion--as a nation we can benefit from both prayer and reason. It is in this spirit that I offer my own prayer for the National Day of Prayer--and Reason.

© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology