The National Day of Prayer has always been a controversial observance that has divided Americans. That’s one of the reasons that the National Day of Reason was created, so that all Americans can unite over a positive principle that we all use at some point in our lives: reason-based thinking.
But this year’s National Day of Prayer was even more sectarian than usual. According to Shadee Ashtari of the Huffington Post, “Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) walked out of the National Day of Prayer event at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, saying she was outraged after James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family, called President Barack Obama the abortion president.” (The charge was tied to the Affordable Healthcare Act’s contraception mandate which includes some forms of emergency contraception.)
Apparently, in a scene straight from a political drama like House of Cards, Hahn rose to her feet after the abortion remark was made, pointed a finger at Mr. Dobson, and shouted, “This is inappropriate!” before storming out of the room. While Hahn should have recognized that any explicitly religious event held in the U.S. capitol building was inappropriate, especially when such an event involves the infamous Christian demagogue James Dobson, she should be commended for taking a stand against this needlessly sectarian and possibly unconstitutional event.
It’s also worth noting that Hahn is no atheist or even apparently a public supporter of church-separation. In fact, Hahn is the co-chair of the weekly Congressional Prayer Breakfast as well as the co-chair of this year’s National Prayer Breakfast. So for her to recognize that this prayer event was inappropriate and flat out political is a major milestone in the campaign against government-supported religious events like the National Day of Prayer.
While Hahn’s dramatic exodus from the National Day of Prayer event has gotten good coverage in the media, it seems as though members of Congress haven’t yet capitalized upon this opportunity to end congressional support of this holiday. That’s disappointing, considering that the only reason the holiday continues to have relevance is because of Congress.
According to the National Day of Prayer Taskforce, which is the evangelical Christian organization that organizes the National Day of Prayer, “In 1952 a joint resolution by Congress, signed by President Truman, declared an annual national day of prayer. In 1988, the law was amended and signed by President Reagan, permanently setting the day as the first Thursday of every May. Each year, the president signs a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day.” Seeing as how Congress started the observance, and seeing as how the resolution they passed calls upon the president to issue a proclamation regarding prayer every year, Congress bears the responsibility for ending this openly partisan and religious holiday which is now dividing not only the American people, but the American government as well.
Prayer remains an important part of many people’s lives, and their ability to pray must be protected as part of the promise of religious liberty that was bestowed upon the American people by the First Amendment. However, the practice of certain government officials to call for prayer should not be confused as a component of religious liberty, as this practice runs counter to the very nature of that principle.