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Q: Did the Pentagon do the right thing by disinviting evangelist Franklin Graham from a National Day of Prayer event next week? Should government officials decide who can or cannot speak at such an event? Should the government proclaim a National Day of Prayer? Was a federal judge right to rule it unconstitutional?
The disinviting of Franklin Graham to the National Day of Prayer highlights the myriad problems that arise when the government takes a leading role in an activity that is best left to religious leaders. But, if the U.S. government believes it has a duty and right to proclaim a National Day of Prayer, it must ensure that the day is inclusive and open to people of all faiths and backgrounds. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmum said, “When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”
Unfortunately, “inclusion” has not been the underlying theme of the National Day of Prayer in previous years. Actually, exclusion has been emphasized. The Pentagon’s invitation to Graham would only have continued that troubling trend. Officials in the Pentagon are to be congratulated for listening to patriotic critics, seeing their mistake and its negative ramifications, and, thus, reversing its own error by rescinding the invitation to Graham.
Just last year, Graham stated, “[T]rue Islam cannot be practiced in this country. You can’t beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they’ve committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries… I don’t agree with the teachings of Islam and I find it to be a very violent religion.”
In 2001, Graham commented, “We’re not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.” Even as the Pentagon was weighing its decision about Graham, he was on a radio station in New York explaining that Islam is evil.
Clearly, Franklin Graham is not someone with whom Muslims would feel comfortable leading them in prayer. I can’t imagine that an imam who made equivalently negative comments about Christianity or Judaism would ever be invited to the National Day of Prayer.
But the issue at the heart of the National Day of Prayer is larger than Franklin Graham. As currently commended and observed, the National Day of Prayer erases the important boundary in our country between government institutions and religion. For too long, the nature of the day has been shaped by Shirley Dobson and other evangelical fundamentalists who believe only Christians’ prayers get God’s attention. Devotees of other religions in our land have been forewarned that the National Day of Prayer events are “Christian” meetings.
Personally, I prefer that the President of the United States not tell people when to pray and about what to pray. Calls to prayer appropriately come from independent groups and/or individuals without any government support or involvement. Prayer is personal and voluntary by nature–a matter of the spirit; not a response to a government mandate or a social demonstration intended to call attention to its religiosity.
Religious freedom is a quintessential right in our nation, and the separation of religion from civil institutions serves to protect this freedom. In the recent ruling on the National Day of Prayer by a federal judge, the declared unconstitutionality of the event shows the critical line of separation that is blurred if not ignored by having the government proclaim the National Day of Prayer. And, it’s simply not necessary. The importance and meaningfulness that prayer has for many of us Americans is more protected than diminished by this thoughtful ruling. No one’s ability to practice their faith would be inhibited if the government left prayer to the prerogative and practice of religious people in this nation. Such a situation also would ensure the highest possible protection of our religious freedoms.