Today, May 1, is the date pronounced by the Congress for Americans to pray for the nation. Prayer has long and widely been rumored to produce results, but has never been demonstrated to do so. True, prayer can surely be therapeutic, giving pray-ers the comfort of having actually done something or obtaining emotional release. But intercessional prayer has never been shown to have effects more than would calling upon the sun god. It is marvelous testimony to the power of religious authorities that so large an untruth as the effectiveness of prayer can persist. Of course, a flat earth and revelations by comets enjoyed a long run as well.
But my musing today about the National Day of Prayer goes beyond prayer’s ineffectiveness. This is a country whose founders contributed to new wonders on the world stage. It was no small wisdom that prompted them to introduce separation of the centralized power of the state and the individualized philosophy of persons. The most dangerous of those individual philosophies was and still is religion, for it pretends to be handed down from the supernatural (therefore, cannot be disproved) and taps into mankind’s greatest vulnerabilities, our fears of the unseen and the everlasting pain it might inflict. Mixing politics up with that disarray of dogmas and their accompanying resistance to compromise cannot but damage hopes for—perhaps make impossible—a long-lasting democratic civil establishment.
Yet religious forces do not give up easily. As clear as founders’ statements were and as clear as the Constitution’s First Amendment is, citizens and leaders allowed religion to get its nose under the tent right away. (For example, the Congress appointed itself a chaplain, for what legitimate reason I strain to understand.) Religious leaders continue to edge their way whenever possible into, for example, school boards and classrooms, to city council meetings, to Ten Commandments and Christmas displays on public property, and on winning tax breaks for organizations that are religious rather than merely charitable. The National Day of Prayer is just another show of distaste many of the faithful have for the First Amendment or, more accurately, distaste for not being in charge.
From NDP’s official website is this description: “The National Day of Prayer is an annual observance held on the first Thursday of May, inviting people of all faiths [italics mine, JC] to pray for the nation. It was created in 1952 by a joint resolution of the United States Congress, and signed into law by President Harry Truman.” That ecumenical tone is reflected in NDP’s further declaration that it “belongs to all Americans. It is a day that transcends differences, bringing together citizens from all backgrounds.” Well, maybe not all backgrounds, viz., the significant percentage of Americans who look upon this official federal pronouncement as declaring winners and losers in the beliefs debate. Not all Americans are ready to accept a supernatural authority dreamed up by the ancients; nonbelievers don’t think their government should make such a delineation to, in effect, define them out.
But wait, maybe believers think atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious persons—quite a few of whom were among our founders!—don’t really count in such an important matter anyway. The implication, of course, is that making a choice about religion should be a matter of majority vote. Even President G.H.W. Bush said atheists couldn’t even be considered patriots. The elevation of religion to so prominent a place in this particular “public square” demonstrates the danger of religion in a democracy. So many believers are not happy having freedom of philosophy and practice, they must have dominion. Most religion is the natural enemy of freedom of conscience and ritual.
But let me desist in ranting about the dictatorial tendency in religion in general, let me note a matter of further concern. The NDP, having bent over backwards to tout its ecumenical evenhandedness, goes on to say that it “exists to mobilize the Christian community [again, italics mine, JC] to intercede for America’s leaders and its families.” You might be confused wondering where Jews fit in this party, much less Muslims, Bahais, Buddhists, and others. But once again a brave effort is made to ensure nothing about the NDP can look anti-Semitic, so the words are added that “The Task Force represents a Judeo Christian expression of the national observance, based on our understanding that this country was birthed in prayer and in reverence for the God of the Bible.” If so, then, what was the “Christian community” bit about?
As one would suspect, the chairperson of the event is Christian, even a fundamentalist Christian, and has been for some years. Mrs. Shirley Dobson, NDP chairman, reminds us: “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 of Prayer, we could end up forfeiting this freedom, too.” She doesn’t say which freedom “this” freedom is (being specific about the pronoun’s antecedent might be embarrassing here), since I can think of no person’s freedom to practice his or her religion has been endangered, much less lost in America. (Well, there is this: Mrs. Dobson’s TV-prominent husband, James, declared it a violation of religious freedom to grant same-sex marriage!) Call me paranoid, but I suspect the freedom she fears losing is religion’s right to bully and its claim on governmental support for religious hegemony.
So our country will observe the National Day of Prayer, especially if you pray to the right god. Prayer is known, of course, to make the country more moral, more prosperous, and to make politicians more honest. Happily, despite all the hoopla, most Americans will not observe the day nor even know it passed by. “Dancing with the Stars” and other of our mindless diversions do have some value.
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