Today is the National Day of Prayer, according to a federal proclamation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 designating the first Thursday of May each year for that purpose. The National Day of Prayer had been declared earlier by President Truman in 1952, but no date had been set.
It is not surprising, perhaps, given the religious scene in 1952 (after all, it was in 1954 that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, at least partly in response to the thread of “Godless Communism”) that the National Day of Prayer has developed primarily as a National Day of Christian Prayer. The National Day of Prayer Task Force, while saying that they represent the “Judeo-Christian expression” of the NDP, are not only clearly Christian, but closely allied with conservative Christianity (The current chair is Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson of Focus on the Family; the previous chair was Vonette Bright, wife of Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ).
Times have changed, to say the least. The religious landscape of our nation has come to include not only the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but the whole spectrum of religious observance from Adventist to Zoroastrian. What would the National Day of Prayer look like if all people of prayer, regardless of orientation, were to gather to give thanks for the blessings we have received, for our religious freedom, and to ask for guidance for our leaders and ourselves?
On one level it’s a lovely vision, and I do hope that people of different faiths will embark on a path to discover how such a gathering and celebration might take shape. And yet, it is likely to be a challenging road. It raises fundamental questions about the nature of prayer (Does your religious path include a concept of praying for others? how does your tradition give thanks? What are we thankful for?), about the purpose or effect of prayer (Just what is the point of prayer? Is prayer just asking for what I want? Do I want the same things you want? What does it mean if people on opposite sides of significant issues pray for contradictory outcomes?), about the relationship of traditions to each other (Does my prayer trump yours? Is one form of prayer more effective than another? Can people of different religions pray “together,” or are we reduced only to taking turns and then watching how each other does it?)
Challenging questions, indeed, but important ones as we continue to grapple with the implications of the new religious America. If we are not willing to find ways to work together, to respect and learn from each other, then we abandon the public square to a single religious voice, one that does not speak for all, but only for a small segment of the people of faith.
By the way, congratulations to the Marin Interfaith Council, who sponsored an interfaith breakfast today which met at a synagogue and heard from a Pentecostal, a Quaker, and a Muslim on “Teaching and Experience of Prayer in Three Traditions.” Let’s hope that next year there are many more opportunities for inclusive celebrations of the National Day of Prayer.