On the National Day of Prayer

Let’s say you’re a parent. Let’s say that one day, under pressure from a bunch of acquaintances who are convinced you’re doing something wrong by neglecting to do this earlier, you start giving your child dessert every night– not only that, but expecting her to eat it. You keep the practice up, night after night, and you see no harm in it, since she seems perfectly happy with it.

Your daughter grows up with this practice. One day, when your daughter is fifteen or so, a friend points out to you that expecting your daughter to eat dessert every night is definitely a bad parenting choice. It’s bad for her health, it fails to teach her how to act with responsibility– in short, it goes against many of the values you had when you became a parent. In light of this, you decide to stop making her eat dessert every night, and instead, to keep sweet options available without pushing them. Your daughter can choose to eat dessert, but you’re no longer pushing it on her. From your perspective, and from the perspective of an outside observer, you’re respecting her right to do what she wants, giving her options while remaining consistent with the beliefs you hold dear as a parent.

Your daughter, though, has grown up expecting this. She hasn’t been unhappy with it; her whims have been catered to for a good chunk of her life. She expects that you’ll provide her with dessert every night. To her eyes, what you’re doing is not an exercise in liberty, in fact she it as the opposite. She feels entitled to her dessert every night. What happened? She was given a privilege so long she began to view it as a right.

This, in a nutshell, is the National Day of Prayer.

Established by Congress in 1952 and then further clarified in 1988, the National Day of Prayer has become a bit of a hot topic lately, no doubt due in part to the recent ruling by Judge Barbara Crabb that found it more than a little bit unconstitutional. In the wake of this ruling, a number of Christians across the country have all of a sudden got their panties in a twist, claiming that Judge Crabb’s ruling infringes upon their freedom of religion.

According to them, by telling the government that it cannot officially sanction a day of prayer, Judge Crabb has violated their First Amendment rights.

Are they reading the same First Amendment I have? Here’s what mine says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Judge Crabb looked at laws made by Congress that respected an establishment of religion– to say the least– and said that wasn’t okay. That’s about the clearest-cut First Amendment case I’ve ever heard of. We’re talking about a law that was inspired by a Christian evangelist’s speech; revised due to action by the founder of a group called”Campus Crusade for Christ” and the National Prayer Committee, which claims on its website to be “[c]entered on the Lord Jesus Christ;” and has created an event that has not only previously included themes such as “One Nation Under God,” and “Prayer! America’s Strength and Shield,” but has also received speakers from the National Prayer Task Force, which self-describes as”represent[ing] a Judeo Christian expression of the national observance.” There is no possible way this law could not be respecting an establishment of religion.

Which means that the panty-twisted Christians think there’s something else going on, something involving that other clause of the First Amendment.

They think that Judge Crabb’s ruling is prohibiting their free exercise of religion.

Apparently, by removing national support for a day of prayer– a day targeted at Judeo-Christian beliefs, a day that clearly and unequivocally constitutes governmental support of a specific establishment of religion (after all, not only is it targeted at Judeo-Christian beliefs, but since when has prayer been a big deal for Buddhists? Since when has it been a big deal for atheists, agnostics, or even self-identified Christians who don’t pray?)– the judge has crossed believers’ free exercise of religion. They want to make it out that they’re being persecuted.

Pardon me, but I’m not buying it for an instant.

See, I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding here. Judge Crabb has said to these believers, “I’m sorry, but the government can’t officially support your religion,” and they’re hearing– in a completely natural way, I assure you– “RAAAAWWWWR YOU MAY NEVER PRAY NEVER EVER EVER.” It’s an easy mistake.

Judge Crabb never crossed their freedom of religion. By striking the National Day of Prayer, she is restricting nobody’s right to pray. It’s not as if Judge Crabb wants to come to your house on the first Thursday in May, stare you down, and force you not to pray. That’s not it at all. You are free to pray at any time. You are free to pray on the first Thursday in May, just as you are free to pray on Sundays, Wednesdays, on Halloween and when it’s snowing outside.

You don’t, however, get governmental support for this prayer. It’s not the government’s job. I’m no expert on the Bible, but didn’t some guy named Jesus even say something like “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s?” Please, by all means, pray on the first Thursday in May if you are so inclined. Nobody’s going to stop you. But if you want the government to tell everyone they should pray, well, that’s an entirely different matter.

The National Prayer Committee claims that because participation in the Day of Prayer is voluntary, nobody’s rights are violated by governmental support for it. This is an absurd stance. Let’s put it in a different context (with thanks to Judge Crabb’s ruling). What if the government encouraged American citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan? If it encouraged all citizens to go to a synagogue? To practice polygamy? It’s not the “free exercise thereof” part that’s being violated, although increasingly, it seems that that’s the only section that the Day of Prayer’s supporters are acknowledging exists. It’s the whole “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” part.

Some defenders of the Day of Prayer may claim that by abolishing support of the Day of Prayer, the government is respecting another establishment of religion– atheism. Such a claim would be ridiculous. For starters, to use an oft-quoted line on the internet, atheism is as much a religion as “bald” is a hair color, or”not collecting stamps” is a hobby. The word “atheist” means “without religion.” But furthermore, a lack of support for religion does not automatically equal support for atheism. As mentioned above, if Judge Crabb were bursting into people’s homes, pinning their arms, binding their mouths and forcing them not to pray; if the White House started the first Thursday in May by imploring the American people not to pray; if the government demolished all churches and told people they could never practice religion– then sure, that would be governmental support of atheism. I would be just as much against it as I am against the Day of Prayer. But that’s not the case. By striking the Day of Prayer, the first Thursday in May becomes as supportive of atheism as every other day in the year. It’s not government support of atheism when the government doesn’t implore its citizens to pray.

Unfortunately, the Christians that claim freedom of speech issues with Judge Crabb’s ruling are suffering from the same skewed judgment that the daughter in my analogy above was. They see a history of Days of Prayer, officially recognized since 1952, and unofficially observed since, as some sources claim, as early as 1775, and mistakenly assume that this history justifies what’s gone on. Since they’ve been getting dessert for decades, if not hundreds of years, it must be okay, right? Furthermore, they’ve enjoyed this privilege so long, they’ve come to see it as a right.

It’s not a right. Governmental support of the Day of Prayer is unconstitutional and divisive. By striking it, the American government will show support for all Americans’ freedom of religion.

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4 Comments

  1. Christine

    You’re right, it’s kind of bull shit. I don’t see it as aligning itself with Christians, but with religious people in general, though.

    The fact of the matter, is that with any topic like this, the government aligns itself with the vast majority.
    It’s why Americans are still in horrific ghettos filled with gang warfare. Investing in fixing that problem (among every other problem I didn’t bother writing down) is not relevant to the majority, and thus, the problem still exists.

    Boo!

  2. My friends and I were discussing this at breakfast today. We agree with you. We were also talking, though, abut issues with Christmas . . . yes, it is a secular holiday at this point, but it is also a *Christian* holiday and there is a problem with institutionalizing that. Your comments on the day of prayer apply just as much to nativity scenes on public property . . . I’m not personally offended by it (and I fall into the category of people to whom it is potentially offensive) but again, there are issues.

    Of course, Christmas is more or less used as an occasion to celebrate peace, love, etc., Christmas trees are really solstice evergreens, Christmas a celebration of the winter solstice (believe it or not, I know *Christians* who are offended by Christmas because it’s a “pagan holiday” and they find paganism offensive), and Easter a commemoration of the vernal equinox . . . but, you know. ;)

  3. Spencer

    The professor who spoke to AHA! seems to have entirely missed the point. The government is very clearly showing favor for a certain religious group by instituting the National Day of Prayer. Does it discriminate? It doesn’t segregate– nobody’s putting non-Christians at the back of the bus– but frankly, as an American atheist, it tells me that the government is aligning itself with Christian groups. Maybe it’s not discrimination. It is, however, highly disturbing.

    I dunno, it doesn’t affect me or anyone who doesn’t want to participate.

    Except it does. It sends the message to nonreligious Americans that they should be praying. It shows that the government is more concerned with protecting the privileges of the vast majority than defending the rights of a minority.

    As always, though, I appreciate your support. Thanks, Christine!

  4. Christine

    In AHA! we had a Professor come in and talk about secularism in America. Someone asked him about this.

    His opinion was that it was only constitutional because it does not favor a specific religion, nor does it discriminate another.

    I dunno, it doesn’t affect me or anyone who doesn’t want to participate. I didn’t bother caring about it. If I got myself riled up, I’m absolutely sure it would make me pretty indignant.

    But that’s just me. I completely understand why you’re against it, and it makes perfect sense. Good post :)

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