Happy National Day of Prayer

Mike Argento, a good friend and the columnist at the York Daily Record, says that wishing someone Merry Christmas used to be a nice shorthand way to extend well wishes to people during the holiday season. Those who wanted to say it, would say it. Those who didn’t, didn’t. That is, until conservative evangelicals got hold of the expression and started crying that anyone who didn’t use the expression is persecuting Christians. After which, Mike observed, folks started using it with all the warmth of a hostile threat, daring someone not to return the expression.

That seems to be where prayer is going in this country. For many, prayer is a solemn act of quiet reflection and a sincere expression of faith. For others, not so much. And that’s just fine. Each to his own. But Christian conservatives are now behaving like prayer is impossible without government sanction.

Since federal Judge Barbara Crabb of Wisconsin ruled last month that the congressionally backed Day of Prayer was unconstitutional, they have been hollering that it discriminates against Christians.

(Despite their inconsistent assertions to the contrary and their call on all faiths to observe the occasion, the National Day of Prayer is a conservative evangelical-led event. The private National Day of Prayer Task Force is the leading organizer and is led by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Its current honorary chairman is the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, who was disinvited last month from a Pentagon National Day of Prayer event regarding his remarks about Islam being an evil religion.)

Crabb put the effect of her decision on hold until the appeals are resolved. And despite email chains that say Obama killed prayer (see the debunking of that claim at Snopes.), the Obama administration issued an official proclamation today for the National Day of Prayer.

So now it’s become just one more thing that divides us in this country. Case in point, the city of Plano, Texas, which was cited in Judge Crabb’s ruling, will have two National Day of Prayer events at City Hall. One at noon is for the Christians and affiliated with the evangelical task force. The 7 p.m. event is for those of other faiths and is sponsored by the city’s Multicultural Outreach Roundtable. How’s that for bringing people together?

The Secular Coalition of America issued a statement yesterday expressing disappointment in Obama’s decision to go ahead with the proclamation:

“When Billy Graham called for a national day of prayer in 1952 he said, ‘The Capital City of our Nation can have a great spiritual awakening, thousands coming to Jesus Christ…’ and challenged Congress to respond. The next day US Representative Percy Priest introduced the National Day of Prayer Resolution as what he said was a response to Graham’s challenge,” said Secular Coalition for America Executive Director Sean Faircloth. “But the US government shouldn’t be in the business of sparking spiritual awakenings. As the court said, a statutorily-created National Day of Prayer is as illegal as would be a National Day of Blasphemy.”

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Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.