Thursday is National Day of Prayer, as mandated by Congress. What should President Obama do? Should he follow tradition and sign a ceremonial proclamation? Should he follow President George W. Bush’s practice of hosting a formal White House event? Should he ignore it completely?
Pray in the White House? Yes. Proclaim in the country? No.
I have long contended that Congress’ official designation and the President’s predictable proclamation of a National Day of Prayer is misguided. It is not government’s job to tell the American people what, where or when to pray.
Although most presidents have issued prayer proclamations, two of the most ardent supporters of religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson — author of the Virginia Bill Establishing Religious Freedom — and James Madison — father of the Constitution — opposed them.
For his part, Jefferson wrote that he “consider[ed] the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercise….”
“Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets,” Jefferson wrote, “and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
James Madison gave five reasons why a religious pronouncement should not be handed down from civil magistrates. Chief among them were that “An advisory Gov’t is a contradiction in terms.” And that such proclamations tend “to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”
Of course, the president should be free to pray in the White House and invite others to join him. Presidents don’t check their faith at the door when they enter office. Frankly, the more our president prays the better I feel.
Exhorting our country to repentance and prayer is altogether proper. Who would argue we don’t need it? But it’s more appropriately called for by the preachers, priests and prophets among us — not civil magistrates, the Congress or even an American president.