Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

The National Day of Prayer Controversy: WWJT? (What Would Jesus Think?)

What would Jesus think about the National Day of Prayer? Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, thinks he knows. But is he right? WWJT?

Last Friday I began to comment on the upcoming National Day of Prayer. It’s slated for this Thursday, May 6, 2010. The controversy surrounding this event has been revved up this year owing to a judge’s decision that the National Day of Prayer, which was approved by the U.S. House and Senate and signed into law in 1952, is unconstitutional. In the last three weeks, there has been no shortage of debate about the legal status of the National Day of Prayer, and no doubt this will continue for a long time to come. The “sides” of the debate are predictable, with some arguing that the National Day of Prayer is a Constitutionally-protected exercise of religious freedom, while others agree with the judge in concluding that the Constitution prohibits the federal government from endorsing an exercise of prayer.


Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham, uses the controversy swirling around the National Day of Prayer to weigh in on the relationship between church and state. He argues for the separation of these two entites, but not on legal grounds. Rather, Meacham offers a “religious case” for keeping church and state separate.

williams-roger-statue-2.jpgAs a witness for his position, Meacham summons Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century preacher and founder of Rhode Island. Meacham quotes Williams, who called for a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” He believed that the church was better off if it was not dependent upon or endorsed by the government, but rather free from government sanction and control. (Photo: Statue of Roger Williams in the National Statuary Hall Collection.)


Meacham’s second witness is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. Here’s what Meacham writes concerning Jesus:

The idea of separation began, in fact, with Jesus. Once, when the crowds were with him and wanted to make him a king, he withdrew and hid. Before Pilate, Jesus was explicit: “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said.

Then, after adding evidence from the Christian tradition and the Founders of the United States, Meacham concludes:

There are many precedents for the National Day of Prayer, but serious believers, given the choice between a government-sanctioned religious moment and the perpetuation of a culture in which religion can take its own stand, free from the corruptions of the world, should always choose the garden of the church over the wilderness of the world. It is, after all, what Jesus did.


So, when it comes to the question of what Jesus would think about a government-sponsored National Day of Prayer, Meacham answers with a definitive thumbs-down.

Is Meacham right? Did Jesus choose “the garden of the church over the wilderness of the world”? And if so, would he do the same when it comes to the National Day of Prayer?

Meacham’s argument depends on two passages from the New Testament Gospels. In one, Jesus hid from the crowds when they wanted to make him king. In the other, Jesus explained that his kingdom “is not of this world.” But do these texts support the point Meacham is trying to make? Or has he become a ventriloquist who is putting words in Jesus’ mouth?

In my next post in this series on the National Day of Prayer, I’ll examine the passages upon which Meacham bases his case. In the meanwhile, what do you think? When you consider the National Day of Prayer, WWJT?

  • http://prayer king loving

    jesus teaches us to pray in supplication and it will be given We want to support our troops We want them safe. prayer is the best way to allow God to know our hearts.we want our loved ones to come home safe PRAYER is making our spirits known God what better way to love and care than prayer. goverment needs all the prayer it can get. we need prayer day to collect our prayers in unison. Thanks for the freedom to share.

  • Thomas Buck

    It’s hard to imagine Jesus having a problem with any sincere attempt to communicate with God.

  • Matches Malone

    My theory is, if it’s worded correctly, or in this case, as to allow our 1st amendment rights to be recognized, that it’s NOT unconstitutional, as the 1st amendment reads in part, “…freedom of religion,” and not freedom from religion.

  • Ray

    When congress declares a “national day of prayer” it does nothing to establish religion, nor does it prohibit the free exercise thereof. So, there is no basis to argue violation of the first amendment. If congress mandates or prohibits prayer, we’re in trouble.
    While I am happy to see prayer given attention by congress, I’m not so sure it isn’t simply political pandering. Would congress call itself to prayer, laying aside all other agenda items of the day to seek God’s guidance for leadership of the nation? Doubtful.
    As to the question of how Jesus would respond, he would probably say something along the lines of Matthew 22:21, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Thanks for your comments. Ray, your reference of Matthew 22:21 is a great one, both because of this verse’s connection of God and human government, but also because of its intentional irony and ambiguity.

  • Gwyddion9

    I think the point of saying it was unconstitutional was because James Dobson has essentially hijacked the National Day of Prayer and made it a Christian specific day, more specifically, the way his sect believes.
    I believe it was former President Clinton who asked Dobson to head the National Day of Prayer but in hindsight, I think it was a mistake.
    The NDofP was intened, as I see it, to be a day when all Americans could come together, regardless of religions or beliefs and offer prayers unto however they defined deity, asking for blessing for our country. As it stands currently under Dobson, one has to agree to ‘their’ beliefs and sign said agreement before being allowed to participate. It’s sad that a day for all Americans has been turned into a day for a specific religion, particularly one sect to have.
    This, is what I believe the point of being unconstitutional is all about and I agree with it.

  • Barb

    Just imagine, what our world would be if all mankind began each day on their knees asking Our Creator to bless, guide and lead us through our daily walk… we really have leaders who put Jesus first ?? But it would be a start with a national day of prayer…it is a beginning….this nation in the beginning had God’s blessing on it and her citizens knew that…this is another time, and we are much the worse for our actions and decisions over the past decades in regard to our obedience to God. I do believe we need to bring America back to a more solid moral and spiritual foundation with God in the forefront of all endeavor…only then can we expect God’s protection and blessing on this nation and mankind. Would that we as a nation develop wisdom.

  • Dan Roloff

    Mark, nice series. I think Meacham’s book, American Gospel, should be required reading in high schools.

  • RR

    Barb…I think prayer, if it is to have any real effectiveness, is a matter of the heart that is best kept out of the reach of politics and policy. Once Christianity becomes “official” and “sanctioned” it is essentially become meaningless and irrelevant.

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