For many years now there has been a National Day of Prayer in America on the first Thursday of the month of May, thus yesterday was our annual National Day of Prayer. I have participated in this event from Washington, D.C., where a live broadcast originated in the evening that reached all across the nation and the globe. I am the last person to offer criticism of any prayer I assure you. But this year’s National Day of Prayer led me to ponder several very uncomfortable concerns. The culture wars have clearly overtaken the whole concept of prayer in the public arena. I wonder if it is time to find a different way to express Christian prayer for the nation.
Reports from various newspapers this morning tell of how different communities approached the day. Some made it into a sectarian religious event in which homosexual lifestyle was a part of the agenda, pro and con. In some prayer gatherings in Chicago homosexuality was spoken of openly with approval while in others it was mentioned negatively. In Wheaton 150 people came to an hour long meeting in which they received booklets opposing medical marijuana, gambling and civil unions for homosexual couples. Even a prayer offered from the podium at the Wheaton event spoke of marriage being under assault and of how America was a "Christian nation" in the past. (This use of the term "Christian" nation is so problematic it begs a thousand questions so I do not use the expression at all.) The man who led a very political prayer represented a group called Americans for Truth. He used the usual words employed in the rhetoric of the modern debates about marriage by praying about this "abomination" of homosexuality. Do not misunderstand me. I think all sexual sin outside of marriage is an abomination. And all sexual relationship outside of the marriage covenant violates the Seventh Commandment. But should this "hot button" issue be at the center of the National Day of Prayer? I have serious doubts, very serious doubts.
At the same time the pastor of an area United Church of Christ argued that such times of prayer are for all people of faith and should not focus exclusively on Christian prayer. An interesting point and one I take up in Monday’s (May 7) forthcoming ACT 3 Weekly article. This pastor attended a different prayer event hosted by a Catholic university in the area. There the gathering was Christian but less political and oriented to the hot cultural and moral issues of the day. This UCC pastor added, "I recognize that this is denied (that people can be faithful Christians and practicing homosexuals) by people who oppose homosexuality, but even so, that seems inappropriate in a context of a day of prayer focused on a nation of which we are all citizens." I think he raises a very interesting and important question.
The time may have come when a National Day of Prayer, as we have known it in the last thirty years or so, is not such a great idea. What has Congress to do with promoting prayer, particularly Christian prayer? I know the history of this well. I know prayers have been prayed in the history of America that are distinctly Christian both in public places and with the government’s approval. What I wonder is whether this is a proper role for Christians in the present America. We are not living in Puritan New England folks. Christians should be in the public square. Christians should pray everywhere. The question is whether or not these broadly sponsored events are helpful and wise in the increasingly post-Christendom world that we now live in.
If anyone prayed appropriately, for such an occasion, is was former Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, a devout Catholic. He prayed: "Let us give thanks for the freedom we enjoy in America. And in giving thanks for freedom, let us resolve to live our freedom nobly remembering, Lord, that freedom is not a measure of doing what we like, but rather having the right to do what we ought." Well said words from a man that I profoundly respect.
Proclamations for national prayer go back to Lincoln’s day and the Civil War. The culture has clearly changed a great deal since then. Unless we want to include Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus in these public meetings then we have to question such public events that are strongly related to governmental bodies and leadership. What I wonder is how many Christians really prayed in their churches on the National Day of Prayer? I believe the number was not that large based on what I know about my own area. For years this event has been more about seeing and being seen with the political elite, at least in my county. I once attended these prayer breakfast meetings and realized that little real prayer was offered. We all heard a speaker and had a nice and expensive breakfast.
I have a simple, but apparently radical, solution. Put prayer back in our families and churches where it really belongs. If we impacted the culture enough that people clamored for such national days they would arise out of the need and the moment not out of a bygone era. Saying this is akin to hating the flag and motherhood in this country, at least among many conservatives but this only underscores my point. Prayer has become a gesture, a talking point, a political weapon. I am not interested in that use of prayer in the least.
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Thanks John – I really like the issues you raised and the questions you asked in here.
By the way I posted excerpts from it (with attribution, of course) on the blog I host: