You might not have noticed it, but today is the National Day of Prayer. I should say, a National Day of Prayer, as that’s what the US Code calls it. Every year, by law, the President issues a proclamation “designating the first Thursday in May as 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, or as individuals.” President Obama’s proclamation this year is rather moving. It stresses the comfort that Americans draw, in times of suffering, from the simple fact that other Americans are praying for them:
Prayer brings communities together and can be a wellspring of strength and support. In the aftermath of senseless acts of violence, the prayers of countless Americans signal to grieving families and a suffering community that they are not alone. Their pain is a shared pain, and their hope a shared hope. Regardless of religion or creed, Americans reflect on the sacredness of life and express their sympathy for the wounded, offering comfort and holding up a light in an hour of darkness.
The proclamation itself ends with a prayer: “I join the citizens of our Nation in giving thanks, in accordance with our own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and in asking for God’s continued guidance, mercy, and protection.”
The day is not without its critics. The Freedom from Religion Foundation once filed a lawsuit, dismissed on standing grounds, arguing that a National Day of Prayer violates the Constitution, and the American Humanist Association hosts a competing National Day of Reason every year. (You might not have noticed that, either.) Orthodox theists of various sorts might find the day objectionable as well. To whom or what are Americans being invited to pray? Doesn’t officially-encouraged prayer to a nondescript deity lead to confusion and least-common-denominator religion? Not everyone finds generic prayers so harmless.
I’m not sure what the answer is, except to say that designating a National Day of Prayer seems entirely American. Public religious references of a nonsectarian character have long been a part of the American tradition, for better or worse, and there’s no stopping them now. The wisdom of our ancestors is in such things, as Dickens once observed in another context, and if we disturb them, the Country’s done for. Purists, of the secular and orthodox variety, have to adjust.