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National Day of Prayer

Today is the National Day of Prayer, which is more controversial this year than usual because of two issues. First, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled the National Day of Prayer to be unconstitutional, which unleashed an expected fury from many Christian leaders. The decision is actually much more reasoned than most are giving it credit (probably because few have actually read it). The fact is that the decision is right both in terms of the government and, more importantly, faith. The National Day of Prayer law--enacted in 1952 and amended in 1988--instructs the President to encourage people to pray. Such an action is the government favoring and promoting certain religions. That might not seem too bad--if you are in the majority faith! However, as Tony Campolo likes to note, mixing church and state is like mixing ice cream and manure--it does not hurt the manure but it sure messes up the ice cream.

The separation of church and state is a Christian idea that is to protect the church from being corrupted by Caesar. We do not need the government to tell us to pray, because that would suggest they could also tell us not to. We should pray everyday regardless what the President or Congress says. As Judge Barbara Crabb wrote in her opinion on the National Day of Prayer:
No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer. ... However, recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic. In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual's decision whether and when to pray.
Prayer is too sacred and important to be left in the hands of government leaders. It is important to remember that Crabb only ruled this law unconstitutional and not prayer itself--as some Christian leaders have falsely claimed (maybe they should read the Ten Commandments more and spend less time fighting for Caesar's blessing).We do not need the law that leads to this day. Instead, Shirley Dobson and her organization could just announce the day and lead celebrations of it. We could have a National Day of Prayer without the government calling it for us. Interestingly, Crabb suggested what the government should actually do is call a "National Day of Religious Freedom." Amen!

The second controversy surrounding the day this year involves the Pentagon disinviting Franklin Graham from a National Day of Prayer event for the military. This case proves why the government should get out of the prayer business. Robert Parham recently had a good column explaining why not having Graham at the event was the correct decision. If the main speaker at a government event is one attacking the faith of some of the people the event is supposed to be for, then how is that not the government endorsing one religion over another? Graham's presence would have made the event even more sectarian.

Graham has made the issue worse by claiming that not letting him speak at the government event is a denial of his free speech rights. However, having the right to speak does not mean you can demand others let you speak at their event. Graham was free to host his own religious event today and speak, but that does not mean the military has to let him speak. Still upset at being dropped from the program, Graham went and prayed outside the Pentagon today. It turns out he was allowed to pray even without the government telling him he could. Amazing! Then he kind of ruined it by holding a press conference to announce he just prayed (so much for Matthew 6).

Demanding people let us publicly pray seems to be contrary to the whole point of prayer. And that is tragedy of these two controversies--the focus does not seem to be on God and thus it all seems to be meaningless.

Here are some columns I have written on similar issues of religious liberty:
Preaching true religious freedom
What the?
Preserving religious liberty
What have we "Plutoed"?
Majority rules

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