The officially sanctioned National Day of Prayer — observed on May 2 this year — goes against the spirit of our secular Constitution.
A federal statute was passed by Congress in 1952 at the direct suggestion of the Rev. Billy Graham, for the purpose of bringing “the Lord Jesus Christ” to the nation. (“What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country kneeling before almighty God in prayer,” Graham urged.) The statute requires the president to issue a prayer proclamation on the first Thursday every May, calling on citizens to “turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”
Since 1989, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, formerly housed in the fundamentalist Christian Focus on the Family’s headquarters, has composed draft proclamations with a yearly theme and scripture verse. Presidents, governors and other public officials have often used the National Day of Prayer Task Force wording or themes.
The National Day of Prayer Task Force organizes thousands of annual prayer gatherings across the country, which have had a history of religious divisiveness. Coordinators, volunteers and speakers at task force events share fundamentalist Christian views. The task force’s stated goal is to pressure all 50 governors to issue a National Day of Prayer proclamation, as well as mayors, county executives and sheriffs.
A Senate report that led to the commemoration demonstrates that the observance is a bad law based on bad history: the revisionist myth that the founders of our secular Constitution prayed during the Constitutional Convention. Prayer was indeed once suggested, but the proposal, floated by Benjamin Franklin, was not acted on. Our founders went on to adopt a godless and entirely secular Constitution, whose only references to religion in government are exclusionary.
At least a quarter of the presidential proclamations have repeated the lie that our Founders prayed during the constitutional convention adopting the secular U.S. Constitution. Many presidential proclamations have invoked other myths, such as that George Washington knelt in prayer in the snow in Valley Forge. All presidential proclamations have instructed “all Americans” to observe a day of prayer. All presidential proclamations have instructed citizens not only to pray and to set aside a day to pray, but have told them what to pray about.
The National Day of Prayer Task Force and evangelicals have not only hijacked the National Day of Prayer, they have hijacked the Constitution. Congress and the president have no business telling Americans when or whether to pray, or much less what to pray about, or to set aside an entire day for prayer every year. With a quarter of our population today identifying as nonreligious, it’s high time to end this phony tradition.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org), a national nonprofit organization with 31,000 members whose purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on nontheism. FFRF has challenged the National Day of Prayer in court.