Today (May 7, 2009) is the "National Day of Prayer", which became a law in 1952 under President Harry Truman after Rev. Billy Graham lead a six-week crusade in Washington. Believers and nonbelievers alike have spoken out against a government sanctioned day of prayer.
J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said "it is not the government's job to tell the American people what, where or when to pray or even if they should pray."
[From the Dallas Morning News
Herb Silverman, mathematics professor at the College of Charleston and President of the Secular Coalition for America, wrote the following article for the Washington Post
Thursday is National Day of Prayer, as mandated by Congress. What should President Obama do? Should he follow tradition and sign a ceremonial proclamation? Should he follow President George W. Bush's practice of hosting a formal White House event? Should he ignore it completely?
Imagine this hypothetical companion headline: "President Obama will also sign a proclamation Friday recognizing National Day of Non-Prayer." Obama would explain that he's being inclusive, as in previous declarations that the U.S. is "no longer a Christian nation," echoed in his inaugural address that America is a nation of many faiths and "nonbelievers."
Of course, I would not expect the president to set aside a special day for what I happily choose to do every day - not pray. And President Obama was wrong to say we were once a Christian nation. We were founded as, and remain, a secular nation, where individuals can pray to one, many, or no gods. We are a nation whose constitution favors neither religion nor non-religion.
Historically, the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christians, and Christianity is still the dominant religion. However, the majority of Americans are also white, and we don't call ourselves a white nation or ask the president to promote a National White Day. Actually, here in South Carolina, a former head of the Charlestown County school board, John Graham Altman, objected to "Black History Month." So he proposed a "White History Month," which received proper public disapproval.
Most Americans would give priority to black history, women's studies, and GLBT programs over their race, gender, and sexual orientation counterparts. Not because we know all there is to know about whites, men, and heterosexuals, but because we recognize how underrepresented are the contributions of certain groups against whom we have long discriminated. Altman's antebellum attitude might be an argument for why a non-prayer day would be more enlightening than a prayer day.
A Hindu friend of mine would be both surprised and delighted if President Obama were to call for a national day to recognize the god Vishnu, to which Christian friends would object even more than I. Vishnu is as real to me as is Yahweh, Zeus, and any other gods. But National Vishnu Day would at least give Americans something to think about, and in my mind, thinking is more effective than praying
I do congratulate President Obama for not making as big a deal of the National Day of Prayer as did President Bush, and it would be silly to request a non-prayer day. But a president who wants to base decisions more on evidence than on faith might consider issuing a proclamation recognizing a National Day of Reason
. Who could object to a president promoting reason?
Finally, Americans United supplies a list of answers to the question: What's Wrong With the National Day of Prayer
"Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it. ...civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."
--- Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Reverend Samuel Miller.
"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg . . . . Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error."
--- Thomas Jefferson
"Religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."
--- James Madison
"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."
--- Benjamin Franklin
"A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his Religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law."
--- Benjamin Franklin
"I think the government ought to stay out of the religious business."
--- Jimmy Carter
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
--- John F Kennedy, Houston Address