The National Day of Prayer and the Roots of Morality
A Wisconsin federal judge has ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb decided in favor of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Foundation that claims a membership of 15,000 freethinkers, agnostics, and atheists. Following Judge Crabb’s ruling Ms. Gaylor said, “It’s an invasion of the freedom of conscience of Americans to have their president direct their prayers or tell them to pray” (qtd. in Johnson). If what Gaylor opines is the case then U.S. Presidents (as well as numerous other government leaders) have been guilty since the beginning of the nation. The National Day of Prayer in its present form began when President Harry Truman signed (1952) a statute that read, “The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating a 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.” Since 1952, all presidents have issued the proclamation with President Ronald Reagan signing an amended law in 1988 establishing the date as the first Thursday in May (Holewa). However, national prayer goes back much farther in history than 50 years. In fact, as former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce James P. Moore, Jr. documents in a definitive book of more than 500 pages, national prayer has deep roots in the philosophies of the Founding Fathers of the United States. For example, in 1787 Benjamin Franklin took the floor of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and addressed the delegates on the importance of all of them turning to prayer. He said,
. . . In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of dangers, we had daily prayer in this room for divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. . . . I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? . . .
I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate at this service. (qtd. in Scott 259-60)
When George Washington took the oath prescribed in article 2, section 1 of the Constitution to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” as the first president, he addressed both houses of Congress at Federal Hall on Wall Street, New York City, April 30, 1789. His words evidence the truth of the affirmation of James P. Moore, Jr., who wrote, “Quite frankly, the story of American prayer is so powerful that it does not need to rely on anything but historic fact and reasonable interpretation” (xi). As the President who delivered the First Inaugural Address, George Washington said,
. . . [I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect. . . . In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own. . . . No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. . . . I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication. . . . (qtd. in Remini and Golway 5)
On March 2, 1863, Senator James Harlan of Iowa introduced a Resolution in the U.S. Senate that asked President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim a national day of prayer and fasting. The Resolution was signed by Lincoln on March 30, one month before the National Fast Day. The Proclamation read as follows:
By the President of the United States of America.
Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation.
And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.
And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th. day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.
All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this thirtieth day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty seventh.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward, Secretary of State (Nicolay and Hay 319-20)
From the above information, as well as from other evidence that can be amassed, it clearly is the case that to “dismiss prayer in the life of America is to embark on a fool’s errand. . . . Every U.S. President, no matter how religious he may or may not have been personally has always found it vital to invoke the name of God and to ask publicly for God’s blessings and guidance on behalf of the country” (Moore xxiii, 467). Thus, the desire of the atheist-based Freedom From Religion Foundation is monumental because of how far it strays from the American way of life. As the group has challenged the National Day of Prayer tradition through the legal system, it is also hoping to influence the current U.S. President to break with this deep American value of national prayer. FFR Foundation co-president Gaylor says, “Here’s a character test for the president. Barack Obama is a legal scholar. He had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. He no longer has to issue this proclamation. This is where the measure of somebody’s character is going to be made” (qtd. in Holewa). Does this mean that all the presidents before Mr. Obama have failed the “character test” since all U.S. Presidents, without one exception, issued the National Day of Prayer proclamation in its present form since 1952? Furthermore, presidents who served prior to 1952, as evidenced above and well documented in such scholarly historical studies as Moore’s One Nation under God, invoked the name of God and prayerfully and consistently asked God’s blessing on America.
Even more fundamental to this discussion is the fact that if the philosophy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is true, then the issue of character is meaningless. As elsewhere written:
Note the connection between the affirmation of “no God” and a character that is corrupt. If there is no God—if man is not the result of the Creator and everything springs ultimately from natural causes—then there is no objective basis for the development of character. In fact, character would be a meaningless term. . . . If human beings are the result of some cosmic accident, blind non-purposive forces, then life is devoid of any true purpose or meaning. (Pugh 90)
In an old, yet relevant, volume, The Influence of Scepticism on Character, being the Sixteenth Fernley Lecture in London, William L. Watkinson sums up the cruciality of the philosophical battle waged between Christian theism and all forms of anti-theism, whether atheism or agnosticism. He observed,
No apology is required for assuming that human character is affected by belief. . . . [T]he experiment of a nation living practically a purely secular life has been tried more than once, and the result of such experiments is clearly discoverable on the pages of history. . . . The testimony of history to the fatal effect of scepticism on character is very clear. . . . If history teaches that what men and nations fall by is want of conduct, it teaches with equal clearness that want of conduct follows the loss of faith in that transcending universe of which the living God is the centre and eternity is the circumference. . . . History shows in bold characters none may misread, that when a people does not like to retain God in their knowledge, and construe the science of life into the science of indulgence, character rapidly declines, and with [out] character all the glory of man descends into the dust. (1, 7, 19-20)
Any philosophical view that negates God has no objective reference point for ethics and morality. Any, and all, conduct, no matter how reprehensible, could be defended because, without God, it is impossible to logically argue for objective right or wrong. “To imagine that . . . all that makes life gentle, can survive the loss of their divine foundation calls for a hardihood of optimism not easy to achieve” (Blaiklock and Blaiklock 50). Attacks on the fundamental Christian values out of which the United States of America came into existence, and has been perpetuated, are not only attacks against the great history of the nation but also against its continued future existence. In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court said,
Our people at the time of the Revolution were religious people—they read the Bible. They believed it. They wanted always to be free to read it and to belong to the church of their choice. When the Constitution did not guarantee that right in specific words, they insisted immediately on a Bill of Rights that would do so. I believe that the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it. Freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition;--the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the people. These things are the very essence of Christianity. They have characterized all our institutions. They have shaped our national life. They have given us our vision for the future. (522, emp. added)
May the value of prayer, which has opened daily sessions of both houses of Congress since 1774, be understood by Americans everywhere in light of the fact that “faith is not a threat to civil society but rather vital to its survival” (Levin 34). As George Washington stated in his 1796 Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. (qtd. in Bryan 100-01, emp. added)
May our prayer be, “Increase our faith” (cf. Luke 17:5). May God bless America.
Blaiklock, E. M. and D. A. Blaiklock. Is It-Or Isn’t It? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968.
Bryan, William Jennings, ed.-in-Chief. The World’s Famous Orations. Vol. 8. New York/London: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906.
Holewa, Lisa. “Wis. Judge Strikes Down National Day of Prayer.” AolNews.com. 16 April 2010. Web. 22 April 2010.
Johnson, Annysa. “Wisconsin Federal Judge Rules against National Day of Prayer.” JSOnline.com. 16 April 2010. Web. 22 April 2010.
Levin, Mark R. Liberty and Tyranny. New York: Threshold-Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Moore, James P. Moore, Jr. One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
Nicolay, John G. and John Hay, eds. Abraham Lincoln Complete Works. New York: Century, 1907.
Pugh, Charles C. III. Things Most Surely Believed. New Martinsville: Pugh, 2002.
Remini, Robert V. and Terry Golway, eds. Fellow Citizens: The Penguin Book of U.S. Presidential Addresses. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Scott, E. H., ed. Journal of the Constitutional Convention. Chicago: Scott, 1893.
Watkinson, William L. The Influence of Scepticism on Character. London: Woolmer, 1886.
Warren, Earl. “Simple Faith Can Move Mountains.” We Believe in Prayer. Comp. Lawrence M. Brings. 2nd printing. Minneapolis: Denison, 1958.