WASHINGTON (ABP) — When Shirley Dobson — wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson — introduced a White House ceremony marking the National Day of Prayer May 6, she lamented the deep divisions in the United States and said “prayer is the force that unites us.”
But some progressive religious leaders accused the prayer event itself of further increasing the nation's cultural divide.
As the culmination of the 53rd annual National Day of Prayer, President Bush offered remarks on prayer to an audience of religious leaders in the East Room of the White House. “Today, in our nation's capital and around the country, we pause to acknowledge our reliance on almighty God, to join in gratitude for his blessings, and to seek his guidance in our lives and for our nation,” Bush told the group of about 150.
The White House ceremony offered some religious diversity — with
Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy offering prayers. Bush even acknowledged the nation's religious pluralism in his speech. “Americans of every faith and every tradition turn daily to God in reverence and humility,” Bush said.
But the audience was largely made up of evangelical Christian leaders. Among them were Southern Baptist Convention president Jack Graham, SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler.
Meanwhile, several religious minority groups and groups supportive of church-state separation criticized Bush's handling of the event, which they say has morphed under his administration into a political event designed to shore up Bush's support among conservative evangelical voters.
“These events are carefully managed to give the general public the impression that the government has endorsed the Religious Right's religious and political viewpoint,” said Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It's exactly the opposite of what our nation's founders intended.”
Lynn pointed to the fact that, since 1988, most of the thousands of National Day of Prayer events around the country have been coordinated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, which says its events are conducted “in accordance with” the group's “Judeo-Christian beliefs.” Since 1991, Shirley Dobson has chaired the task force. The group requires its event coordinators to subscribe to a Christian confession of faith that, among other things, affirms biblical inerrancy.
The organization's website also encourages National Day of Prayer participants to pray specifically about five different areas of the nation's culture that Lynn's group noted rely on beliefs promoted by the Religious Right. For example, in its section on what to pray for in the area of education, the website laments the fact that “[m]any of our schools and universities” are “promoting a radical social agenda,” such as “teaching homosexual propaganda to kindergarteners.”
In instructing participants to pray for the nation's media outlets, the website says that “Christian individuals in the news and entertainment industries” need “strength and perseverance as they endeavor to let their lights shine in what is often an environment hostile to those who voice their belief in Christ.”
The prayer day has taken place since President Harry Truman and Congress declared the first one in 1952. While under previous presidents the White House event often was held in private, Bush has focused more attention on it than his predecessors. This year, for instance, the White House event was, for the first time, taped for broadcast in prime time on several Christian television networks.
Critics said that amounts to election-year politics. But a spokesman for the task force said the event wasn't political in nature. “We're in an election year, and we believe God cares for who's in those positions of authority,” Mark Fried told the Washington Post. “But we're not endorsing a candidate — just praying that God's hand will be on the election.”
In some states, events related to the National Day of Prayer have provoked controversy in recent years because their organizers excluded anyone but evangelical Christians from leading ceremonies. In Salt Lake City, several religious groups reportedly boycotted this year's ceremony because its organizers barred Mormons from leading it.
Likewise, an interfaith group in Oklahoma City organized an alternative event to the task force-organized one in the state Capitol rotunda. Led by Bruce Prescott, coordinator of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, the group brought about 100 people to the steps of the Oklahoma Capitol to, as Prescott put it, “talk about the value of religious liberty and the liberty of conscience, freedom of conscience, from their faith perspective.”
Meanwhile, Prescott said, the ceremony organized by the task force “was just evangelical Christians. And here they make no bones about the fact that it's Christians only.” Prescott also said the task force has “always been just right-wing Christians. Mainline Christians have never been asked to participate.”
Back in Washington, however, any controversy over the event seemed distant. In introducing the White House event, Dobson praised Bush for his religious faith and leadership. “We deeply appreciate your commitment to prayer, your belief in God, and your principled leadership of this nation,” she told the president, to extended applause from the audience.