Today, Thursday, May 6 is the National Day of Prayer. Once again the issue of faith in the public square is raging in public debate. Two recent decisions have reignited the controversy: Last month, Franklin Graham was “uninvited” by military brass from leading a prayer service today at a military facility. And U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb recently ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.
John Adams may not roll over in his grave, but he and his fellow Founders are no doubt falling on their knees before the Throne of Heaven to intercede on behalf of our stumbling nation…
Prayer to God is a long standing precedent in our American public life. On April 17, 1952, President Harry Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer must be declared by each president at a date of his choice. In his 1983 declaration, Ronald Reagan said, “From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.” In 1988, the law was amended making the National Day of Prayer the first Thursday of May.
Gauging how far government should go to extend influence in matters of faith was a paramount question for the Founders. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause was adopted as a specific reaction to the Church of England, established during the colonial era as official religion. The Founders concern was that no one organized religious institution should dominate and legislate a single faith expression in America. They wanted separation of any religious body from the national government. Kudos to this!
They never intended or envisioned however a separation of FAITH from State. In fact, they could never have imagined America without individual and corporate expressions of faith in God. Here are just a few examples: Prior to the nation’s founding, the Continental Congress declared “a day of publick [sic] humiliation, fasting, and prayer” be observed on July 20, 1775. During the Quasi-War with France, President John Adams set aside May 9, 1798 as “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” during which citizens of all faiths were asked to pray “that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it”. On March 30, 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins”, and set April 30, 1863 as a day of “national humiliation, fasting and prayer” in the hope that God would restore “our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace”. Lincoln added, “…it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
Declarations of faith in God and calls to prayer are NOT an establishment of religion. Prayer in fact has nothing to do with religion. Prayer is a statement of self evident reality: God is God and we are not. And we are built to instinctively cry out to him for help and strength. Prescribing HOW we pray is the domain of religion. But the National Day of Prayer offers no prescription. It addressed the “IF” but not the “HOW.”
How we pray today is not the point or the argument. Whether or not we pray is. Americans today are urged by their government to personally, or in voluntary gatherings to turn and address the Origin of our life and liberty, declared as such in our own founding documents. Today, we are obligated to offer thanks to God, to recognize his greatness and sovereignty over all things, and to humbly ask – invite – his engagement in our lives, personally and nationally. Let us do so. Let us pray.
True to the spirit of this National Day of Prayer, I will not today offer a “HOW” we should pray. Prayer I believe comes instinctively to us, and we pray best and most effectively when we pray naturally, out of the overflow of our passions and fears and hopes and experiences. I will however urge us all to actually DO prayer. Take some time today, privately and if it is natural, collectively as well. Lift your heart to God. Lift up thanks and praise as well as fears and concerns and specific matters that you know you or anyone can fix. Ask for help.
His promise is simple and specific. God initiated the precedent for a National Day of Prayer when he said, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” II Chronicles 7:14.