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Do we need a national day of prayer?

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Today, May 1, 2014, was the National Day of Prayer, observed on the first Thursday of May every year since 1952. Although the day has been observed by people of the diverse religious traditions of the country, for the most part it has been developed, promoted, and observed by more conservative groups of Christians.

To volunteer as an organizer through the official National Day of Prayer site, an individual must indicate what church they belong to, who the Pastor is, and give a personal testimony of their "relationship to Jesus Christ." They must also indicate whether they agree or disagree with a statement of faith which includes several assertions characteristic of conservative Christianity: the infallibility of the Bible, the deity and virgin birth of Jesus, the blood atonement, bodily resurrection, and final judgement to life or damnation. That affirmation alone excludes any number of Christians, not to begin to list Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Zoroastrians.

In an article at the Pew Research Center, Michael Lipka observes that the observance had its roots in the Cold War era, as did the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Public officials were concerned to stress the religious dimensions of the nation in contrast to "godless Communism."

Opponents of the National Day of Prayer range from those for whom prayer is a meaningless exercise to those for whom prayer is of utmost importance. The latter object to the idea that there should be a special "day of prayer" in the nation, and are concerned about the limitations on religious freedom that are implicit in the focus on a particular form of Christianity to the exclusion of all others.

According to a USA Today/Gallup poll taken in 2010, a majority of those polled were in favor of a national day of prayer (57%); only 5% opposed such a day. For more than a third (38%), however, it didn't make any difference. Interestingly, when asked whether a National Day of Prayer should be used to promote Christian prayer, 62% agreed it should, while 36% felt it would be inappropriate.

President Barack Obama's proclamation for 2014 says in part, "I invite the citizens of our Nation to give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I join all people of faith in asking for God’s continued guidance, mercy, and protection as we seek a more just world." Perhaps eventually we will see either a true representation of the diversity of "faiths and consciences," or discover that that diversity does not lend itself to a national celebration.

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