President Obama decided to end the National Day of Prayer event at the White House, which for years was a staple for President George W. Bush, disappointing evangelicals and other religious groups who saw it as an important endorsement of the role of religion in guiding a nation. What message do you think rescinding the event sends? And what role, then, should the president and other government leaders play in promoting faith-based messages?
In the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln “highly” resolved that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
We declared independence from the king of Great Britain precisely because he acted in autonomous, hurtful ways that defied our collective interests and personality as a people. To this day we elect leaders to be our representatives in government. So with all due respect, we must ask who President Obama is representing by this deliberate act of terminating an ongoing, annual event that does not promote any one religion or church and that reflects our choice to be “one nation under God.”
The crystal clear message sent is that secularists now have unjust influence in the function of government and that any religious faith must be quarantined from the public, even as our president’s prayers were. Hosting a nondenominational prayer event does not establish a religion. It acknowledges who we are. Terminating the National Day of Prayer event at the White House in such a manner cuts the very heart out of our nation.
In his Biblical letter, James wrote, “You do not have because you do not ask.”
I believe our country will lack open and public blessings because our current leaders refuse to pray in an open and public manner.
PASTOR JON BARTA
Valley Baptist Church
The president failed to serve the Lord when an opportunity for him to be faithful was afforded him. God allowed him to become president, and God has given him a humongous opportunity to display his allegiance to the Savior of mankind, Jesus Christ, but he simply “wrote” it off.
Yes, he acknowledged the day by signing a proclamation, just like his predecessors, but he nixed the visual aid that would have shown the nation we had a genuine man-of-God in the Oval Office — really unfortunate.
National Day of Prayer is observed annually like Christmas, Hanukkah or Ramadan, except that all faith persuasions may, in good conscience, participate. Each religion has its own spiritual perspective, so while it would be ridiculous to artificially gather together in cacophonous prayer to contradictory deities, it makes perfect sense for Americans to pray together separately — not in religious unity, but as religious citizens. The National Day of Prayer is a call to include the nation in everyone’s prayer list.
As professing Christians, I would think that the Obamas could have joined with the rest of us for the National Day of Prayer, and had a service at the White House with those of like faith. His Christian example would then stimulate all Americans of other faiths to gather with their like-spirited brethren and join with Him by having their own community services.
The National Day of Prayer Task Force is the primary facilitator for Evangelical observance that provides Christ-centered materials to help us fulfill Biblical scriptures regarding prayer for our land and leaders. If other religions want to join in support of their country, then they might want to create their own resource organizations so that they too may sense greater ownership and responsibility for our National Day of Prayer.
THE REV. BRYAN GRIEM
Montrose Community Church
To be clear, President Obama has not abandoned the endorsement of the National Day of Prayer. The president has simply reshaped the way the official ceremony was presented as a White House event. Therefore, the messages sent by our president’s actions are to restore the American tradition of religious pluralism and to adjust this event to be a decidedly ecumenical proclamation.
Historical records indicate that our presidents, from our founding fathers John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to modern day Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, all declared that the national prayer services were intended for people of all faiths. The president, at a recent press conference in Turkey, stated, “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”
So the White House has restored our deep-rooted American belief in religious pluralism. An example of this inclusive attitude is Obama’s hosting of a Passover Seder at the White House on April 9 — a first for this Jewish occasion.
During the last eight years of President George W. Bush, the National Day of Prayer event at the White House was not inclusionary. The events were organized by a private group called the National Day of Prayer Task Force chaired by Shirley Dobson, the wife of the Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson. The group represents a narrow segment of conservative evangelical Christianity that, as a matter of policy, requires only Christian clergy to officiate the services as they graciously allow all faiths to attend.
Contrast this to the ecumenical approach of Obama’s latest break from his predecessor. The White House proclamation this year cites the “one law that binds all great religions together: the Golden Rule and its call to love one another, to understand one another, and to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”
Thus, Obama observed the U.S. Prayer Day by signing an ecumenical proclamation in a private observance in keeping with the way the previous presidents — including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — marked the event.
Islam values ecumenism in its broad sense as religious pluralism. The Quran advises in interfaith dialogue, “. . . We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to God do we submit.” (29:46)
Islamic Congregation of La Cañada Flintridge
One can only wonder why President Obama canceled the prayer event. It has been a staple, not only in the George W. Bush presidency, but in administrations preceding the last one as well. So I wonder why Obama did it.
At the same time, part of me thinks it wasn’t such a bad idea, because the president, whoever he or she is, should be president for all the people, not just conservative evangelicals, and not just Christians. Do Jews get invited to the prayer breakfasts? Do Muslims? Do Hindus? If the answer is yes, how comfortable do they feel in a majority “Christian” atmosphere?
I loved what Obama did at his inauguration — invite more conservative clergy, such as Rick Warren, to give the invocation. That invitation ruffled the feathers of some of Obama’s more liberal supporters, but it was a good move politically and religiously.
By that move perhaps the new president was saying to many, “I’m not as liberal as you think I am,” and he may also have been trying to say that those more conservative than he are welcome, too. In his inauguration festivities, Obama seemed to be trying to be more inclusive and trying to be president to all the people. Perhaps his cancellation of the prayer event was a similar, if puzzling, move.
Perhaps in his interest in keeping church and state separate, he was saying to the non-religious, “I’m your president, too.”
THE REV C. L. “SKIP” LINDEMAN
La Cañada Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Scaling back the White House observance of the National Day of Prayer after so many years is an unwise decision, because this step sends a message that religious beliefs and values may not be central to the president’s agenda.
My understanding is that President Obama will sign a proclamation to recognize the day like many of his predecessors have done, but will no longer host a public ceremony. Although I give the president the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he still holds religion close to his heart, I fear that many citizens will not do the same.
The National Day of Prayer is a nondenominational event where members of all faiths come together for camaraderie and prayer in a display of ecumenical harmony. Occasions like these reinforce the idea that our wonderful nation is a place where people of all backgrounds are able to unite and share equally in the great American experience. This is precisely the role government should play regarding religion — promoting tolerance and unity without showing any preference for one religious belief over another.
Many polls and surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves religious and associate with a spiritual order. It behooves our president to recognize this reality by embracing faith-based events allowed by our constitution, such as the National Day of Prayer. Doing otherwise may be perceived as kowtowing to a rather narrow, extreme agenda, which is never a good idea.
If the Obama administration has any concerns that this particular event may have become politicized, I would think the best way to change that perception would be to participate fully and demonstrate that spiritual and ethical values are not the exclusive property of any group or party.
RABBI SIMCHA BACKMAN
Chabad Jewish Center