On May 4, 2006, Americans across the nation came together to celebrate the National Day of Prayer. The first Thursday in May was marked by Congress in 1952 as a date to “turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” (1) Some ceremonies were held in public civic places, others in churches as community gatherings; some included many faiths, and others restricted public prayers to Christian voices alone. As a variety of people offered their prayers and reflections, a debate within religious America over the nature of this day continued.
Although days of prayer and reflection have been named by Congress and the President for many years, in most cases these involved a particular event, such as celebrating the end of the Revolutionary War or prayers for peace during wartime. The Continental Congress asked for guidance in forming a nation in 1775; in 1863, President Lincoln sought a day of “fasting and prayer” during the Civil War (2); and during World War II, President Roosevelt led Christians in prayer during his radio addresses. (3)
However, presidents have disagreed on the desirability of national days of prayer: Thomas Jefferson, in an 1808 letter to the Reverend Samuel Miller, wrote “"Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it." (3a) In James Madison’s 1817 Detached Memoranda, he expressed doubts about national days of prayer, as “they seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”
In 1952, following a six-week prayer campaign in Washington, DC led by Billy Graham (3b) members of the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution for a yearly National Day of Prayer, “on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” (3c) Rep. Percy Priest called for a proclamation of “a day which members of all faiths and all religions could spend in meditation and prayer.” (3b) Senator Robertson saw the resolution as a measure against “the corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based.” (3b) In 1952, President Truman signed into law an act officially establishing a National Day of Prayer. These days varied from year to year, as each president proclaimed a different date; President Eisenhower, for example, named July 4, 1953. (3d)
In 1988, Congress amended the resolution to name a recurring date of the first Thursday in May. The resolution was signed into law by President Reagan, and subsequent presidents have offered non-sectarian proclamations on the National Day of Prayer:
“In every city, town, and rural community across our country, people of every religious denomination gather to worship according to their faith. In churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques, Americans come together to pray.”--President Bill Clinton, 1998. (2)
"The Congress... has called on our citizens to reaffirm the role of prayer in our society and to honor the religious diversity our freedom permits by recognizing annually a 'National Day of Prayer.'"--President George W. Bush, 2002. (3a)
Interfaith Celebrations of the National Day of Prayer in 2005
In response to this call, many groups have organized public gatherings. Several of these have been notable for their inclusion of many faiths. Tulsa, Oklahoma featured several events on May 5, 2005, from a prayer breakfast at the United Methodist Church to prison ministry at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center. A noon service included leaders from seven faith communitiesï¿½Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic, and Native Americanï¿½and was attended by the mayor of Tulsa. Prayers for peace and compassion were offered, and the service celebrated both the shared experiences between human beings and the differences between faith traditions. (4)
The Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in Redlands, California on the same day was organized by the Redlands Area Interfaith Council. Catholics, Protestants, evangelical Christians, Jews, Baha’is and members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints asked for blessings “on government leaders, the community, and the world.” Prayers mentioned the importance of Holocaust Remembrance Day (also May 5th), the understanding to accept our differences, and a hope for a city in which “everyone has a home, no one is hungry, and neighbors help each other.”(6)
In Oklahoma City, 150 people attended a similar ceremony outside the Capitol building, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Pagan, and atheist leaders. Attendees spoke on the virtues of religious freedom and tolerance; Stephanie Urquhardt of the Military Pagan Network remarked, “This is how we create a world of beneficence and creativity.”(5)
The National Day of Prayer Task Force
Prayers on the same day offered at events supported by the National Day of Prayer Task Force were similar in intent, offering hope for peace, compassion, and wisdom for our leaders. However, these events were different in a very important way: only Christians were welcome to speak, and only Christians who agreed to a particular evangelical view of Christianity were able to volunteer as coordinators. (2)
A research report (2) by the Texas Faith Network (7) investigates the National Day of Prayer Task Force. According to their report, the Task Force was founded in 1988 to “encourage and promote events related to the National Day of Prayer.” It is a private non-profit organization that recruits volunteers on local and regional levels as well as planning events in Washington, D.C. It maintains close ties with Focus on the Family, a conservative evangelical Christian organization; the Task Force’s headquarters are within Focus on the Family offices in Colorado, and the Task Force is chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of the founder of Focus on the Family. (2)
Events sponsored by the Task Force are “specifically limited to the Judeo-Christian heritage and those who share that conviction as expressed in the Lausanne Covenant.” (8) The Lausanne Covenant expresses a specifically evangelical Christianity, which may not be compatible with the beliefs of Catholics and many non-evangelical Protestants: for example, salvation is not to be found without Christ, and the Bible is regarded as infallible. (16) Those who are not members of this tradition are welcome to attend events, but will not be allowed to speak. The Texas Faith Network concludes that the designation of Task Force events as "Judeo-Christian" is "a disingenuous claim", given that the Lausanne Covenant focuses on redemption through Christ alone, and thus does not include Jewish beliefs. (2)
The Texas Faith Network's research shows how the National Day of Prayer Task Force interprets the general term of “prayer” as specifically Christian invocations; likewise, their version of Christianity is tied to a particular political outlook. The “Freedom Five”, a list of topics to pray for, includes mention of bringing schools “back to basics” (8), and halting “condom distribution, the promotion of homosexuality.”(2) A report on the Task Force’s website, "School Prayer Event Guide," laments the Supreme Court decision to remove public prayer in schools and links that decision to declines in student performance, violent crime, and unstable families. (9) Christianity is depicted as identical to a culturally conservative outlook.
Concern about the role of the Task Force is not new. For several years, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has issued press releases regarding the National Day of Prayer Task Force, describing its links with Focus on the Family and its blurring of the line between governmental organization and religious institution. (18) In 2002, Americans United released a Frequently Asked Questions brochure about the National Day of Prayer (19), and their website includes a Media Background document. (20)
Although the Task Force is a private non-profit and not a governmental organization, its publications and press releases constantly blur this distinction. An annual official theme and honorary chairperson are chosen each year (for 2006, the theme is “America, Honor God”) (8), and press releases are “marketed to the media, as well as state governments and local municipalities.” (2) Press releases on the National Day of Prayer move freely from discussing the history of the Day of Prayer to announcing the ‘official’ theme and chairman, without mention of the non-profit, sectarian, and non-governmental nature of the Task Force. (2) A press statement regarding Hurricane Katrina has the same omission, and includes a paragraph about the Congressional establishment of the National Day of Prayer directly after a call to pray together. (10) The report of the Texas Faith Network concludes that this deliberate, and false, conflation of government approval and private initiative effectively “brands the National Day of Prayer Task Force as the de facto national sponsor”, making a day of many prayers into a sectarian-sponsored event. (2)
When Pluralism and Exclusivism Collide
Conflicts have arisen over exclusive sectarian interpretations of the National Day of Prayer. In Muncie, IN, a 2003 celebration of the National Day of Prayer fractured into two different events when the organizers disagreed over whether the event would involve multiple faiths or only conservative Christians. Both events took place at City Hall; both were attended by the mayor. (11)
In 2005, the Plano, Texas National Day of Prayer event was radically different from the previous two years. The Collin County Interfaith Group, which includes Hindu, Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian representatives, had planned events in 2003 and 2004. Local National Day of Prayer Task Force volunteers took control of the 2005 service, and only Christians were invited to participate. (12)
Troy, Michigan, became in 2005 the site of a legal battleground over what a National Day of Prayer service should be. The city's National Day of Prayer had been organized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force and held on the plaza in front of City Hall for nearly ten years. In 2004, Mayor Louise Schilling had asked Ms. Padma Kuppa, an Indian-born US citizen, to give a Hindu prayer during her introduction of the event; the Task Force objected. The next year, once again Ms. Kuppa contacted the coordinator of the Task Force event in Troy personally and requested that other faith communities be represented. The coordinator refused, and asked the City Council to recognize the Task Force event as an exclusively Judeo-Christian observance. (13)
With the help of the local branch of the National Council for Community and Justice, Ms. Kuppa was put in touch with local faith leaders. Together, this Troy Interfaith Group worked to propose a different, multi-faith event for the same day. (13) The rabbi from Troy's only Jewish congregation, Shir Tikvah, joined the planning for the interfaith celebration, turning the Task Force event into a Christian rather than Judeo-Christian observance. (17) Mayor Schilling opposed the use of City Hall facilities for the Task Force's Christian-only event. The Task Force consulted with lawyers and protested that their rights to free speech and free exercise of religion were being abridged. The City Council voted to allow the Task Force’s event, but also suggested that the Interfaith Group meet at the same location an hour earlier. (13) The Interfaith Group declined, and rescinded their request to use city property, saying it would be appropriate to meet elsewhere for a religious purpose. (14)
Thus, on May 5, 2005, both groups celebrated the National Day of Prayer, drawing about 250 people each. (13) At noon, the Task Force-sponsored group met at City Hall, featuring “speakers in alignment with our faith”, according to the coordinator. (14) The Troy Interfaith Group met that evening; after a Muslim call to prayer, presenters read prayers for the nation, verses on kinship and the golden rule, and sang, among other selections, “God Bless America” and “We Shall Overcome.” (15) Religious Diversity News articles on the Troy National Day of Prayer celebrations can be found here.
Two different visions of religious America collide on the National Day of Prayer. One reflects a vision of America as solely a Christian country, and supports a politicized version of conservative evangelical Christianity. This religious America is founded on these Christian prayers, and seeks to strengthen the nation through emphasizing one version of its majority faith.
The other vision of America recognizes that our religious landscape contains far more than a single interpretation of Christianity, and that this diversity is in itself a strength. At these events, people are not asked to set aside their different faiths, but rather to draw on each one’s beliefs, bringing all the varied prayers for compassion, peace, and dreams of a better world together.
The National Day of Prayer Task Force is correct that “a particular expression of [the National Day of Prayer] can be defined by those who choose to organize it.” (8) The freedom of every group to gather and pray publicly must be upheld; to do otherwise is to deny the freedom of free exercise of religion in America. The organizers of a National Day of Prayer event are free to hold a ceremony that does not contradict their beliefs.
On one hand, such a ceremony might be a celebration of a single faith, and a single political outlook within that faith. On the other, celebrations of the National Day of Prayer could reflect both the America that exists—with multiple faiths and many opinions within each faith—and a hope for an America in the future: inclusive and accepting of different faiths, bringing many voices together in celebration and communion. The first Thursday in May will continue to reflect these different visions as the tension between exclusivity and religious freedom is negotiated.
1) Public Law 324, approved April 17, 1952 by President Truman. Cited in the report of the Texas Faith Network.
2) "The National Day of Prayer Task Force: Turning a Day of Faith into a Rally for the Christian Right." Published by the Texas Faith Network in 2005. Retrieved February 17, 2006 from http://www.tfn.org/files/fck/NDOP%20Report%202005%20Revised.pdf.
3) Proclamation of the National Day of Prayer, 2005, by President George W. Bush. Retrieved February 17, 2006 from http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/05/20050503-2.html
3a) Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, “History of the National Day of Prayer.” Retrieved January 17, 2007 from http://www.religioustolerance.org/day_pray2.htm.
3b) 98 Congressional Record p.771, 976.
3c) Public Law 82-324.
3d) Eisenhower, Dwight D. Personal letter to Francis Joseph Spellman, 8 July 1953. In The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, ed. L. Galambos and D. van Ee, doc. 307. Retrieved January 17, 2007 from http://www.eisenhowermemorial.org/presidential-papers/first-term/documents/307.cfm.
4) Sherman, Bill. "One Day for Many Faiths." The Tulsa World, May 6, 2005, p.A15.
5) Talley, Tim. "Religious Leaders Call for Diversity on National Day of Prayer." Associated Press State and Local Wire, May 5, 2005.
6) Miller, Bettye Wells and Chris Richard. "Prayers Offered for Peace, Tolerance During National Event: People Gather Throughout the Region to Observe the National Day of Prayer." The Riverside Press-Enterprise, May 6, 2005, p.B1.
7) Texas Faith Network main website. Retrieved February 17, 2006 from http://www.tfn.org/faithnetwork/.
8) National Day of Prayer Task Force: About NDP. Retrieved February 17, 2006 from http://www.ndptf.org/about/index.cfm.
9) National Day of Prayer Task Force: School Prayer Event Guide, Retrieved February 15, 2006 from http://www.ndptf.org/schools/school_events_guide.pdf.
10) National Day of Prayer Task Force: Hurricane Katrina Press Release. Retrieved February 17, 2006 from http://www.nationaldayofprayer.org/downloads/NDPKatrinaStatement.pdf.
11) Religious Tolerance.Org: Some Inclusive Celebrations of the National Day of Prayer. Retrieved February 17, 2006 from http://www.religioustolerance.org/day_pray5.htm.
12) Stoler, Steve. "Christians Only at Prayer Event in Plano." WFAA-TV, Dallas-Fort Worth, May 5, 2005. Available online at http://www.wfaa.com/sharedcontent/dws/wfaa/sstoler/stories/wfaa050505_wz_prayer.24564eb42.html.
13) Email Communication between Pluralism Project and Ms. Padma Kuppa during April and May, 2005.
14) Lewis, Shawn. "Day of Prayer at Troy City Hall Divides Religious Groups: Interfaith group Decides to Go Elsewhere After Christians Protest Their Inclusion in Event." The Detroit News, April 6, 2005. Available online at http://www.detnews.com/2005/religion/0504/06/C01-141352.htm.
15) "Troy National Day of Prayer Celebration." Program for the Troy Interfaith Group ceremony on May 5, 2005.
16) Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization: The Lausanne Covenant. Retrieved February 20, 2006 from http://www.lausanne.org/Brix?pageID=12891.
17) Berman, Laura. "Heaven Help Us, But Is a Day of Prayer the Time to Talk Politics?" The Detroit News, May 24, 2005. Available online at http://www.detnews.com/2005/metro/0505/24/B01-191206.htm.
18) Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "National Day of Prayer Has Become Platform for Religious Right Propaganda Campaign, Charges Church-State Watchdog Group." April 28, 1999. Available online at http://www.au.org/site/News2?JServSessionIdr010=akhy0bhjy2.app5b&abbr=pr&page=NewsArticle&id=6208&news_iv_ctrl=148.
19) Americans United. "National Day of Prayer Questions and Answers." Retrieved March 20, 2006 from http://www.au.org/site/DocServer/National_Day_Of_Prayer_FAQ.pdf?docID=153 .
20) Americans United. "Media Background Information on the National Day of Prayer." Retrieved March 20, 2006 from http://www.au.org/site/News2?JServSessionIdr010=akhy0bhjy2.app5b&abbr=pr&page=NewsArticle&id=6208&news_iv_ctrl=1481.
Interfaith groups seeking to plan an event will find useful resources in our Online Interfaith Resource Guides.
This report was written by Research Associate Emily Ronald under the supervision of Managing Director Grove Harris.