Fifty-four years ago the U.S. Congress established an annual day of prayer, and in 1988 designated that day should occur on the first Thursday of May each year. Predating either of those designations was a proclamation by the Continental Congress in 1775 setting aside a day of prayer. But one critic believes the National Day of Prayer (NDP) has become a vehicle for Christian conservatives to promote what he categorizes as a "regressive" agenda.
The theme of this year's National Day of Prayer (May 4) is "America, Honor God" -- a focus based on the Old Testament scripture found in 1 Samuel 2:30: "Those who honor me, I will honor." The observance in the nation's capital will feature an address by well-known Christian author and pastor Dr. Henry Blackaby, and the song "America, Honor God" performed by Christian artist Rebecca St. James.
NDP chairman Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson, says it is vital that "God's people stand firmly in defense of the precepts He's laid out in His Word" -- particularly when society has rejected so many of the principle found in Scripture. For example, Mrs. Dobson has stated she would like people "to be praying about the institution of marriage, how God designed it." Believers, she says, are engaged in a "cultural battle," and only one thing will assure the success of their efforts: "consistent, fervent prayer for God's intervention."
Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has trouble with that. He says Congress never should have established the event, and so he and his organization have launched a pre-emptive strike on this week's National Day of Prayer. A press release from Americans United accuses "religious right leaders and politicians" of using NDP to "politicize religion and divide Americans."
"James Dobson has shamelessly exploited [NDP] to advance his divisive political agenda," says Lynn. "This merger of religion and politics is exactly what our nation's founding fathers hoped to avoid." AU's executive director also accuses the Dobsons of intentionally excluding "millions of Americans who differ with the Religious Right's narrow religious and political agenda."
Mrs. Dobson, however, strikes a more positive note, suggesting that the national observance provides individuals the opportunity to humble themselves before the Almighty and to ask God "to forgive our collective rebellion against Him." In addition, she encourages people to pray for the nation's schools, the media, and governmental leaders -- in the case of the latter, specifically asking God to grant those leaders wisdom for the challenges they face every day.
But Lynn says promoting prayer is a matter best left to houses of worship. "Most organizations that do prayer days are ones that want you to pray every day," he tells Associated Press, "and those are called churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.
"There's no reason for the Congress to tell any of us who pray regularly anyway that we should pray longer, faster, or harder just because it's the first Thursday in May," Lynn says.
Despite Lynn's objections to a National Day of Prayer, millions of Americans are expected to participate at the local level. According to the American Family Association, numerous city halls across the country will be the gathering place on Thursday for those interested in praying for the moral rebirth of America.
In coordination with the NDP, AFA is sponsoring its 15th annual Meet At City Hall from 12:20-12:40 p.m. During this 20-minute time span, people are encouraged to meet at their local city halls and publicly take a stand for the values on which America was founded. The Mississippi-based pro-family group encourages the involvement of public officials and administrators, local pastors, and church choirs.
"America desperately needs a moral rebirth," says AFA founder and chairman Don Wildmon. "We need to implore God's blessings on our country and ask Him to forgive our sinfulness and restore our moral perspective."
Some Americans are not waiting until Thursday to proclaim God's Word across the nation and solicit His guidance. On Capitol Hill this week, the entire Bible is being read aloud, from "In the beginning" to the final "Amen" of the Book of Revelation. The 17th annual National Bible Reading Marathon began Sunday evening on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol and continues non-stop for 90 hours, concluding Thursday on the National Day of Prayer. This year's volunteer readers include children, clergy, and members of Congress.