Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A National Day of Prayer worth Observing

On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer to be declared by each succeeding president at an appropriate date chosen by that president. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to that law that provides that the National Day of Prayer shall be held on the first Thursday of May. Hence, May 7, 2009 is the date designated for the 2009 National Day of Prayer. The original intent was for this to be a day when persons of all faiths could pray for the nation in their diverse ways.

Sadly, this intended time of inter-faith prayerfulness, humility, and unity appears to have become a victim to religious imperialism and Christian fundamentalism associated with Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based organization founded by James Dobson. The National Day of Prayer Task Force (NDPTF) is a non-governmental organization created by the National Prayer Committee. However, its stated purpose is to coordinate events for "evangelical Christians." When one visits the NDPTF Internet site, one learns that Mrs. Shirley Dobson is chair of the event, and that prayers are urged to be offered for U.S. government, military, media, churches, family in keeping with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

As an ordained Baptist minister, I certainly agree that prayer is urgently needed for the United States and the rest of our world. With so many people in vulnerable situations on so many levels (physically, financially, emotionally, socially, legally, and otherwise), prayers of confession,intercession, and repentance are desperately needed. We should be coming together to pray for healing, humility, and reconciliation. We should be praying for our planet, people throughout the world who are suffering, and for wisdom to be instruments of hope, unity, justice, and healing rather than agents of violence (including militarism), self-centered materialism, and imperialistic opportunism.

Yet, the efforts of the NDPTF are disquieting for several reasons.

First, the NDPTF appears more interested in using the National Day of Prayer for recruitment to its fundamentalist notion of Christianity than unifying Americans of all faith and social backgrounds. Media Matters reports that in 2004 Shirley Dobson barred Mormons from conducting services during National Day of Prayer ceremonies. Wikipedia reports that the 2008 application for volunteer coordinators required that applicants affirm their belief in biblical inerrancy, and that a previous application for Task Force coordinators included being "an evangelical Christian who has a personal relationship with Christ" and an acknowledgment that the applicant was "working for the Lord Jesus Christ ..." Such emphasis on Dobson's brand of Christianity is plainly off-putting for persons who are not Christians. It also discourages Christians who respectfully disagree with Dobson about what the Christian faith is and means from participating in National Day of Prayer activities.

The Christian fundamentalist emphasis appears elsewhere in the NDPTF website. At various points, one reads that prayer is needed because the traditional notions of family and marriage are under attack. One wonders how persons who are divorced, single-parents, and how unmarried cohabiting persons (whatever their sexual orientation might be) can comfortably consider themselves invited to join in prayer for their families alongside people who openly deny that their families are legitimate.

I do not recall that the National Day of Prayer Task Force called the nation to prayer in 2000 after the Florida vote recount was mobbed by what we now know were political operatives determined to elect George W. Bush even if it meant disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Florida voters. I do not recall the NDPTF calling the nation to pray for forgiveness after President Bush launched the nation into war in Iraq without any provocation from Saddam Hussein or threat to the security of the U.S. from his regime. I recall no calls by the NDPTF to confess that the U.S. led invasion of Iraq converted the suffering of that society from Hussein's dictatorial brutality to U.S. imperial brutality by occupying of that country with foreign soldiers based on reasons that were ill-conceived, if not deliberately fabricated. If the NDPTF called on the nation to confess the violence--including murder--against homosexuals, I am unaware that it did so.

One searches the NDPTF website in vain for the slightest hint of repentance about torture and other inhumane treatment perpetrated against people of South Asian ethnicity and/or Islamic faith during the Bush administration's so-called "war on terror." Similarly, there is no evidence that the NDPTF considers the tragedies suffered by immigrants (including children of immigrant parents) because of state and national immigration policies and practices worth mentioning, let alone worth being prayerfully repentant about.

Thus, it appears that at some point that the NDPTF forgot (assuming that they ever believed) that the National Day of Prayer is not a sectarian or partisan observance, but a time of prayer for people of all faiths, political ideologies, and social situations. Given such glaring evidence of sectarianism, we should hope that most people of faith will not confuse the National Day of Prayer with James and Shirley Dobson, Focus on the Family, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and an imperial Christianity agenda that tramples and marginalizes people who are poor, vulnerable, immigrant, or otherwise different from the majority of our population in the name of God and democracy. The National Day of Prayer is an American observance for people of all faiths and situations, not a forum for religious apartheid.

Finally, I agree with what Cornel West wrote in Democracy Matters when he warned that what he termed "Constantinian Christianity"--meaning a version of Christianity based on love of empire rather than a love of God for all humanity--"must not be the model of American Christian identity." As West observed, "Even the most seemingly pious can inflict great harm. Constantine himself flouted his piety even as he continued to dominate and conquer peoples.... [I]t is only with a coalition of the prophetic Christians of all colors, the prophetic Jews and Muslims and Buddhists, and the democratic secularists that we can preserve the American democratic experiment."

On May 7, I will join Americans of all faiths, colors, and backgrounds, family situations, and political ideologies (including ideologies I oppose) in prayer. I hope we pray humbly, reverently, and honestly. I hope we pray together in confession and repentance about our egregious ways of perpetrating injustice against the poor, weak, vulnerable, and unpopular. I hope we repent about our sins against the Earth and the other creatures that inhabit it. I hope we repent for our refusal to repent in years past of our glaring and our covert national sins. I hope we are thankful, hopeful, and unified in asking God to inspire our leaders to be wise, humble, compassionate, and devoted to peace through justice for all persons.

However, I have nothing but contempt for efforts to pervert the National Day of Prayer into an exercise in religious segregation, whether those efforts are taken by the NDPTF or anyone else. On May 7, I intend to be part of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often termed "the beloved community" in prayer, not part of a neo-Jim Crow imperial version of Christian fundamentalism.