Last Thursday, a U.S. District Court judge in Madison, Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. On Friday, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Perkins duked it out on CNN, rehearsing familiar arguments:
Hitchens: Court decision good. “The first amendment is written with admirable clarity that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.'”
Perkins: Court decision bad. (He’s calling for the judge’s impeachment). “The National Day of Prayer goes all the way back to the founding fathers.”
Despite some hysterical emails, blogs, and Facebook status updates, President Obama still plans to acknowledge this year’s National Day of Prayer on May 6. (It seems there isn’t any issue which the President’s detractors won’t confuse or distort in order to demonize him).
Many Christians are outraged at Judge Barbara Crabb’s ruling. Tony Perkins and his organization, The Family Research Council, speak for a large segment of American church-goers who see Thursday’s decision as deliberate “judicial activism,” intent on leading the United States further down the path toward “godless socialism.”
But here, I submit, are five reasons why the National Day of Prayer, from a Christian perspective, has always been a bad idea:
One: The Church is a borderless body. While we all live somewhere, our national identities and allegiances are trumped by our membership in a transglobal, transhistorical ekklesia in which no nation, tribe, or tongue is privileged over any other. We can love being an American, but we should never act as if God is one.
Two: The God whom Christians pray to is not a vague, benevolent being nor a punitive warrior-god, but is known through the history of the Jews and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The generic, ceremonial deism of the NDP can’t make sense of a first-century crucified rabbi whose non-violent teachings were an affront to nationalistic pride and state power.
Three: The Church’s liturgy trains us, in its “Prayers of the People,” to pray regularly for all nations, all leaders, all peoples. We also pray for our local communities and for our country. In the Book of Common Prayer, for example, generations of Anglicans/Episcopalians have prayed every Sunday for the President of the United States–by name. Such prayers are a routine part of the formation of a people over time. To set aside a special Thursday in May to tribalize these prayers–to shrink their scope and limit their efficacy–is to break faith with our basic baptismal promise to be loyal to the Church which, according to United Methodism, “God has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.”
Four: Christians recognize that many of the neighbors we are called to love are people of other faiths. We have theological disagreements with them; we are not, deep down, “all the same.” But those disagreements are not grounds for exclusion or suspicion or distrust; they are occasions for mutual engagement and edification. The NDP (as theologically anemic as its observances often are) typically does not communicate a genuine, generous spirit of openness toward Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and persons of other religious traditions.
Five: It’s an established truth that seems to need regular repeating: The founders of the republic did not endorse a view of America as a “Christian nation,” as Tony Perkins and his fellows would have us believe. While Witherspoon, Henry, and Jay ascribed to the tenets of orthodox Christianity, their more important counterparts–Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Monroe–emphatically did not. They were privileged, propertied “men of reason,” classic deists, who, as Daniel Boorstin once said, “found in God what they most admired in men.”
Promoting and participating in a National Day of Prayer (in any nation) unwittingly confuses flag and cross: narrow state allegiance with loyalty to Christ and his global body. But most clergy I know–even the ones troubled by what the NDP typically promotes–are loathe to criticize or boycott it. It seems that American pastors–Catholic or Protestant–can survive almost any accusation except “anti-American.”
Christians pledge allegiance to the suffering God of the cross, not to a tribal deity who thinks America is special. This God, we know from Scripture, is more likely to meet us in the hurting people and lost causes on the wrong side of town than in the halls of power or on the courthouse steps.