Thoughts on National Day of Prayer


We live in an era in American history where the powers that be seem to be divorcing public life from our religious heritage. So, I am relieved that our nation, on Thursday, May 1st, once again, is recognizing the National Day of Prayer.

This event shows that as a nation we are not too proud, too educated, or (seemingly) too powerful to pray. Still, national surveys seem to indicate that many within our nation are becoming less religious, and with this non-religious perspective I implicitly hear the question, why is it necessary to pray publicly?

Such a question seems to stem from one of three flawed positions: a concern not to offend others, a belief that in order to maintain a diverse society we must forgo our religious history, and a conscious antagonism toward the Christian faith.

The first position presupposes that the very presence of religion and prayer in public life is offensive. As such, scripture and religious symbols are removed from public monuments, direct references alluding to our reliance on our Creator are ignored, and prayer has been eliminated from board of education meetings and replaced by moments of silence.

Essentially, individuals earning a paycheck from the government are trained not to display or speak of their faith while working or representing their office. Otherwise, they run the risk of legal punishment.

But if public prayer is so offensive, why is it appropriate during times of national tragedies and not otherwise? And if it important to harness the benefits of prayer during national tragedies, would it not garner even more benefits for the nation if we prayed more often?

The second flawed position about public prayer is derived from what I believe to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a diverse society in the modern era.

America, unquestionably, is a diverse society. In fact, it was founded upon Judeo-Christian values that allowed people from all over the world to experience the freedom of making their life choices — including freedom of religion — and living out the consequences thereof. This has led to America being the most prosperous/blessed nation on earth.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, every society has as its underpinnings distinct world-views that promote freedom of its people or suppress them. To ensure this freedom is available to all, we must be a moral people submitting ourselves to the rule of law — which must be applied equally.

It is precisely because of our religious heritage that our nation has fought for the freedoms of its diverse people, including those of differing faiths.

I have the cognitive ability to discern that even though a government leader, such as President Roosevelt — who prayed openly for our nation after Pearl Harbor — and President Bush — who prayed after 9/11 — may be praying out of deference to God, he is not mandating a religious edict on others, who may not share in his particular faith. This leads me to the final fallacy about public prayer.

This position seems to be from those who are not simply non-religious, but anti-religious, and have a distinct desire to remove religious expression, particularly Christianity, from public life. They seem to want to replace the First Amendment with the phrase “separation of church and state.”

But this phrase, contrary to what many might believe, is not a part of the Declaration of Independence, nor our Constitution and its Amendments. Rather, this phrase merely appears in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists Association.

From the context of the letter and its intended audience, the letter was intended to assure the Baptists that the state would not assert its authority on the church, rather than what is erroneously interpreted today as a way to constrain the church (and its members) from having any religious expression in public life or influence on the state.

And this sense is clear in the First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” Unfortunately, individuals have even used the Bible itself to argue against public prayer and expressions of faith. They cite the passage from Matthew 6:6, which says, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen …”

However, they fail to take into account all the other instances of public prayer made by kings, generals, and leaders throughout the Bible. They do not recognize that this passage references a person who uses prayer as a point of self-exaltation, rather than a humble act of recognition and submission to God.

It is my sincere hope that regardless of one’s religious beliefs, they will not be negatively influenced by the popular but flawed arguments relative to prayer in the public sphere.

For the National Day of Prayer is not intended to force or impose a religious view on anyone, nor does it represent some perceived constitutional threat.

Rather, it is an exercise of constitutional freedom, a wonderful expression of goodwill and love by those who choose to pray for the continued success of our nation, out of a desire to honor the God in whom we believe.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]