Steven Waldman

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Conservative religious groups are criticizing President Obama for what the Associated Press called his “muted” observance of National Prayer Day. “At this time in our country’s history, we would hope our President would recognize more fully the importance of prayer,” said Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of National Day of Prayer Task Force, which organizes the prayer day festivities. The Family Research Council said Obama’s decision to not have a big White House prayer event constituted a “de-emphasis on prayer.”I think this is actually a case of religious conservatives having cut off their noses to spite their faces. Putting aside for a moment the question of whether it’s appropriate for the White House to be involved in encouraging prayer, this particular occasion has evolved in a way that almost guaranteed its demise.The Bush White House had National Prayer Day run by a conservative, evangelistic Christian group. The mission statement on the Task Force’s website states that “in accordance with Biblical truth,” the Task Force seeks to, among other thing:• “Foster unity within the Christian Church”• “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian Heritage”• “Glorify the Lord in word and deed”The event became a showcase for religious conservative Christians to lead the nation in prayer. I think it’s wonderful that groups like this are encouraging prayer. I hope they organize millions to pray today and in the future. But for them to have an official or semi-official role is clearly against the spirit of the Constitution and insulting to all those non-Evangelicals who pray (not to mention those who don’t). As James Madison argued, politicizing prayer is a great way to turn people away not only from politics but prayer. I believe Obama had no choice but downplay any event led by this Task Force. Instead he issued a proclamation which will satisfy neither conservatives nor those who think the President should stay far away from religion: “I call upon Americans to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings and to ask for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection for this land that we love.” (The text of the full proclamation is here).Btw, here’s a video taken from a National Prayer Day celebration in Tacoma, Washington. It’s lovely, warm and very evangelical.First published on

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