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Obama issues prayer proclamation, eschews event

WASHINGTON (BP)–Americans observed the National Day of Prayer May 7, but the White House gave it less attention than in the recent past.

President Obama issued a proclamation on the occasion but declined to host a prayer event, something that happened annually during the previous eight years.

Meanwhile, two Baptist church-state leaders disagreed over the appropriateness of a National Day of Prayer.

Congress established the National Day of Prayer as an annual event in 1952. In 1988, the law was amended to set the first Thursday of May for its observance.

In 2001, President George W. Bush hosted in his first year in office a White House observance unlike any held previously in recognition of the National Day of Prayer. The event was repeated throughout the remainder of his eight years in office. The gathering typically included prayer, music and comments from Bush and Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer (NDP) Task Force and wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

Like presidents beginning with Harry Truman, Obama signed a proclamation, which is required by the 1952 law, though no event was held at the White House.

“I call upon Americans to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings and to ask for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection for this land that we love,” Obama said in the proclamation.

Strict church-state separationists, such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized Congress’ requirement of a National Day of Prayer.

BJC Executive Director J. Brent Walker said “it is not the government’s job to tell the American people what, where or when to pray or even if they should pray.”

“There is nothing wrong with the American people getting together to pray on a designated day, even public officials,” Walker said in a written statement.

“The problem with the National Day of Prayer is that it is an official act of the government urging citizens to engage in a religious exercise,” he said. “A day of prayer is more appropriately called for by pastors, rabbis and imams among us — not civil magistrates, Congress or even an American president.”

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s church-state entity, disagreed.

“The National Day of Prayer is nothing more or less than our government accommodating itself to the fact that we are a very religious people in all of our pluralism and diversity,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “In a country where 61 percent of the people say that religion is very important in their lives and where four out of five Americans say that they pray on at least a fairly regular basis, it is utterly uncontroversial for the government to designate a National Day of Prayer recognizing the abundantly religious nature of American society and to encourage Americans to pray according to the dictates of their own consciences.”

Land spoke to Baptist Press after attending a Capitol Hill observance organized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force. The event, which was held in a House of Representatives office building, featured remarks from various speakers, including honorary chairman and well-known, Southern Baptist Bible teacher Beth Moore, and prayers for government officials and other American leaders.

In his proclamation, Obama said Americans “have come together in moments of great challenge and uncertainty to humble themselves in prayer,” citing occasions in 1775 and during the Civil War when such observances were held.

The president called on Americans to honor America’s military on a “day of unity and prayer,” recognizing “it is because of them that we continue to live in a Nation where people of all faiths can worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience.”

He also urged people to “come together in a moment of peace and goodwill” to help the needy and to end strife.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force is a privately funded organization that says it encourages participation in the observance by people of all faiths but the events it organizes represent “a Judeo-Christian expression.” In addition to the Capitol Hill event, observances affiliated with the Task Force were held across the country, including one in Los Angeles featuring members of the entertainment industry.

The theme for this year’s National Day of Prayer Task Force-sponsored observance was “Prayer … America’s Hope!” It was based on Psalm 33:22, which says, “May Your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in You.”
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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