by Edd Doerr
May 5, designated by Congress as this year's National Day of Prayer, has come and gone. Scarcely anyone paid attention. Humanists and freethinkers griped a bit, but that is hardly news. But there is something to be said on the subject again.
If most Americans claim a religious affiliation of some sort and believe in prayer, whatever diverse meanings that might have across the spectrum, why is it necesary for government to designate a special day for it? Aren't praying people capable of deciding for themselves when or if or how to pray? And since there are many activities that may have "religious" significance -- such in addition to prayer as alms giving, visiting the sick, helping widows and orphans, etc -- where does government come off designating a specific activity, prayer? Or does helping poor people fall under the heading of some sort of socialism?
Just as relevant as what "unbelievers" may say on the subject is what devout believers in prayer have to add to the discussion. My friend J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, representing a wide range of Baptist bodies (minus the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist denomination, whose governing apparatus was taken over by ultraconservatives a generation ago), had this to say. "The problem with the National Day of Prayer is that it is an official act of government urging citizens to engage in a religious exercise." And, "The government should not be in the business of telling the Anerican people what, where and when to pray or even if they should pray."
BJC general counsel K. Hollyn Hollman, referring to the April 14 federal appeals court ruling that private citizens lack "standing" to challenge the practice, added that "most Americans are unaware of the occasion", but "it is certainly unwise".
The National Day was started in 1952 by Congress, and like a fishhook stuck in one's finger, it is easier to get in than get out.
The big problem, the real problem, is that far too many Americans have forgotten that the men (women being still shut out of the political process then) who designed our Constitution knew very well the evils associated with mixing religion and government, and so they incorporated the principle of separation of church and state into our founding charter. Politicians like John F. Kennedy understood this well, but far too many political hacks today are eager to force all taxpayers to contribute involuntarily to religious private schools (through vouchers or tuition tax credits), to impose theological notions about "personhood at conception" on all women (who sadly make up only 17% of Congress), to smuggle fundamantalist "creationism" into public schools.
What Ben Franklin wrote over two centuries ago is still applicable today: "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when God does not care to support it, so that its professors [adherents] are obliged to call for the help of the civil power [government], it it a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."