The President and the National Day of Prayer

The United States has had many National Days of Prayer over the years. James Buchanan called for one in 1861 when southern states started pulling out of the Union. Since the 1950s these Days of Prayer have been celebrated pretty regularly. During the George W. Bush administration, the White House had a ceremony to mark the occasion. President Obama has chosen to discontinue this practice.

Support for the President has taken two tracks. Some praise him for not politicizing a spiritual thing. That’s a nice idea. Richard Nixon instituted weekly religious services when he was President, but one of his aides later wrote that Nixon did this as a way to reach out to religious people who might not fit in as well at other White House activities. Thus, Nixon was politicizing the spiritual.

A spokesman for an atheist group praised the President for taking a step in the direction of the separation of church and state.

Criticism of the President is focused on the idea that we are a religious (predominantly Christian) people, and past Presidents have supported the Day of Prayer, so why is he charting a different path? The President has spoken openly about his Christian heritage and he had organized prayers at his inauguration, so why change now? Surely, critics can argue, a man who has time to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket and appear on Jay Leno can find the time to offer some public acknowledgment of prayer.

Is such criticism overblown? Maybe. The President did sign a proclamation recognizing the Day of Prayer. He did this privately, but its release does qualify as a public acknowledgment.

But the notion that downplaying a Day of Prayer is somehow supportive of the quality of life for atheists is off the mark. It might support their agenda, but does it really help them in any tangible way? If the President wants to pray, or if he says that prayer is a good thing, why would an atheist care? How are atheists hurt by that? If the US passed a law saying that Americans had to recite a specific, sectarian prayer in order to get a job, that would be another matter.

An overwhelming majority of Americans pray. Of the people who pray in this country, more pray in the name of Jesus than in the name of anybody else. It would seem that a savvy politician, which President Obama is, would be able to navigate through this one day a year with a little less controversy than this.