Thursday, May 5, 2016

National Days of Prayer, a Political Perspective

I  have attended the Mayor's prayer breakfast in Pasadena for the last couple of years with Jill and have found it a great way to connect with the community and to be inspired by the remarkable work being done by volunteer organizations like Friends In Deed. This year was special because Terry Tornek is the first Jewish mayor of our city and Rabbi Marvin Gross, the director of Union Station, was key note speaker. I enjoyed having a Jewish perspective on volunteer service. (Among other things, he noted that there are over 1000 nonprofits in Pasadena!) I also was moved by the beautiful prayer of Reverend Sandy Olewine, a dear Methodist friend who served for many years in Bethlehem and now pastors a church in Pasadena.

However, the skeptical side of me began to wonder about the political context for such public displays of prayer. Jesus warned us not to pray ostentatiously in public. All too often public prayers can be occasions for hypocrisy, the sin that Jesus seemed to despise the most. 

Nonetheless, I see value in coming together publicly to pray. These events help us to affirm our common values and hopes, and that can be a very good thing. 

But as I did some quick research via wiki, I was also struck by how overtly political such public occasions of prayer can be, and that's not always a good thing. In the Colonial period, national prayer days were occasions to protest what was seen as tyrannical government:
Friction in 1768–1776 between the American colonists and England spurred some American cities and colonies to proclaim days of prayer. For instance, Boston declared a day of fasting and prayer in September 1768, as a protest against a British plan to station troops in the city. The Colony of Virginia's House of Burgesses established a day of fasting and prayer to take place on Wednesday, June 1, 1774, to protest the Boston Port Act, such that the people of Virginia would assemble for prayer led by clergymen.[7] Thomas Jefferson wrote that "the effect of the day through the whole colony was like a shock of electricity," moving the Virginians to choose delegates to establish self-rule.[8] 
I have no objection to prayer as a form of nonviolent protest, but public prayer was also used to unite the nation around wars.

 In his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington acknowledged a day of "fasting, humiliation and prayer" proclaimed by the Continental Congress to be held on Thursday, May 6, 1779. To enable his soldiers to observe the day, Washington ordered a one-day cessation of recreation and "unnecessary labor".[12] In March 1780, Congress announced a day of "fasting, humiliation and prayer" to be held on Wednesday, April 26, 1780.[13]The practice of calling for national days of fasting and prayer was abandoned from 1784 until 1789, even though thanksgiving days were observed each fall.[14] On October 3, 1789, President Washington called for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving to be observed on Thursday, November 26, 1789; this was an extension of the tradition of thanksgiving which was already customary in New England.[15][16] President Adams continued the practice of proclaiming national days of prayer in the spring and fall,[17] but President Jefferson did not, as he considered prayer to be a matter for personal rather than state involvement.[18][19]After James Madison, none of the next eleven presidents issued prayer proclamations. [20] Thus, there was a period of 47 years, from 1815 to 1862, with no presidential prayer proclamations. [21]

It wasn't until the bloody Civil War that a National Day of Prayer was reinstated by President Lincoln who no doubt hoped that prayer would help unite the nation--a purpose that was clearly political, and would have been seen as such, especially by the Confederacy.

The current National Day of Prayer was instituted in 1952, during the Korean War, to emphasize that the United States was united as a Christian, or at least Godly nation (as opposed to the godless Communists who were our enemies). During the Cold War and the McCarthy era, public displays of prayer was seen as a way to unite Americans "at this hour of peril" (i.e. the war in Korea),  which is why our leaders were so eager to call for a National Day of Prayer. 
 In January–February 1952 during the Korean War, the desirability of a united national prayer was stated by Reverend Billy Graham, who said, "What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer. What a thrill would sweep this country. What renewed hope and courage would grip the Americans at this hour of peril." Representative Percy Priest from Tennessee observed that Graham had issued a challenge for a national day of prayer.[22] Members of the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution for an annual National Day of Prayer, "on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals."[23] On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer must be declared by each subsequent president at an appropriate date of his choice.[15]
As a Quaker, and as a Christian committed to peacemaking, I can't help feeling uncomfortable that National Days of Prayer are so often associated with war. For example, our "war president," George W. Bush, not only issued an announcements about National Days of Prayer, he also held prayer events during each year of his presidency. This is one of the reasons that Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP) adopted the slogan: "Religious communities must stop blessing war and violence."

Despite this checkered history, I feel comfortable with local prayer breakfasts like the one we have in Pasadena. I felt that it celebrates not war, but shalom --an evocative Hebrew word with a rich range of meanings: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, health, and tranquility. In the Bible "shalom" is usually linked with justice, as in Psalm 85: 10:
"Love and faithfulness meet together; justice and peace kiss each other."
In this broken, war-torn war, we need times of public prayer and reflection when we can meet together to celebrate common values that can help us to create the kind of community we all yearn for, a community based on shalom and justice.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the short historical trail about national prayer in our history. It's sad that the worse side of prayer keeps showing up. The recent news states a number of the current presidential candidates have emphasized to one degree or another that God has called them to be president.

    As far as peace and prayer goes, I wonder if anyone on an international scale has sought to bring opposing groups together to pray over their hostilities?

    I know that Musalaha in Palestine/Israel does this on a local level and that Tom Fox, before he was killed, sought to do this.