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Playing Hard to Get with Religion: Feigning Disgust with the National Day of Prayer

Today is the first Thursday in May, which means it’s the National Day of Prayer. 

In mid-April, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb deemed the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional because "its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function…" Despite the ruling, just 15 days later, President Obama made the customary proclamation for observance of the day:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 6, 2010, as a National Day of Prayer.  I call upon the citizens of our Nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I invite all people of faith to join me in asking for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection as we meet the challenges before us.  

The day has been on the national calendar for 59 consecutive years before it was decided that observance of the day breaks the law against government-backed religion. Indeed, a presidential proclamation encouraging prayer does seem to come into direct contest with the separation of church and state we’re so proud of in America, but I’m not sure why everybody seems so surprised. Because let’s be honest–just because we don’t have a state-sponsored religion in this country doesn’t mean religion doesn’t play a huge role in society. There’s a reason why Christmas Day is a national holiday, why mail isn’t delivered on Sundays instead of skipping Wednesdays, why we sing "God Bless America," and why the Pledge of Allegiance still contains "Under God," (don’t yell at me! I didn’t do it!). I could go on, of course.
America is playing hard-to-get with religion. We pretend like it doesn’t matter, but we tattoo its name on our buildings and we care how our leaders interact with it. Remember the 2000 elections, when everybody was all in a tizzy that Gore’s vice presidential choice, Senator Joe Leiberman, wouldn’t be able to be a viable Vice President because of his Shabbat observance? (I was 11 and not even a Jew yet, so if I remember, so should you.) Nobody makes this accusation of government officials who spend their Sundays in Church. Well, except Kennedy, because he was Catholic which obviously meant he was going to let the Pope take over America. This I don’t remember for obvious reasons.
Can you imagine the uproar if an atheist was elected to any major national government office? America demands religious observance of its leaders. The citizens of this country are a hundred percent convinced that it matters desperately. That’s why so much controversy has surrounded the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens–not because of his politics, necessarily, but because the Supreme Court could very well be left with no more Protestants.
So if we care so much about the religion of our government, if it’s only second nature that nothing but the 24-hour drug store is open on Christmas and Easter, what’s the problem with praying? The people who pray regularly were going to pray anyway, and I have a hard time believing those who don’t pray are going to be convinced today. We don’t all celebrate Memorial Day, and we don’t all have to celebrate the National Day of Prayer. Nobody’s forcing anybody into anything here.
On a related note, oddly enough, my Catholic school has done nothing to recognize the National Day of Prayer. Perhaps that’s because they know, with finals beginning on Tuesday, students are doing plenty of praying already.
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