On the first Thursday of May, there was a prayer meeting of sorts outside the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Franklin Graham and about a dozen friends gathered on the sidewalk and prayed for five minutes. After theamen, Graham told reporters that he was praying for our president, for our soldiers, and especially for his son who is in Afghanistan: [The soldiers] risk their lives every day to protect our freedom, so my prayer was that God would watch over them. You have probably heard that Graham was praying outside the Pentagon because the military had rescinded its invitation to him to lead a prayer meeting inside the walls of the military complex. It turns out that Graham’s previous comments about Islam being a religion of hate were too incendiary for the military industrial complex.
In the meantime, the very existence of a National Day of Prayer was threatened. On April 15, U.S. district judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment which forbids the establishment of religion by the federal government. In other words, 58 years after president Harry Truman signed a bill saying that we are supposed to turn to God in prayer and meditation on the first Thursday in May, Judge Crabb ruled that the NDOP is unconstitutional. Her reasoning was puzzling. Crabb claimed her ruling wasn’t because prayer is a meaningless relic from our Puritan past. Instead, the federal judge said prayer is too powerful for the government to touch. Crabb wrote this:
In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual’s decision whether and when to pray.
What do you think? Should our government endorse a National Day of Prayer? Or should prayer be left to those who actually place their faith in God? And if we do away with the NDOP, what about Christmas as a national holiday? For that matter, what about Thanksgiving? To whom do we give thanks if not the God whose will and wisdom has blessed us? The list goes on: Should the Senate and the House continue their practice of opening their sessions with prayer? Should our president be sworn into office with his hand on a Bible saying, so help me God?
If you struggle with any of the above questions, know that our nation has been wrestling with this issue ever since a group of men gathered in Philadelphia to declare independence. In fact, the Founders struggled among themselves. There was, for example, a huge difference between the way George Washington and Thomas Jefferson saw the role of religion in public life. According to a recent book, Washington consistently sought to use governmental authority to encourage religion and foster the religious character of the American people (God and the Founders: Madison, Washington and Jefferson by Vincent Munoz). Commentator Ryan Anderson adds:
Washington’s theory was simple: Since republican self-government was impossible without moral virtue, and moral virtue impossible without religion, the state had a legitimate interest in promoting religion. So long as the state’s action was broadly ecumenical (not favoring any particular sect), and didn’t force anyone to worship against their will, the good of religion could be promoted without violating religious liberty. (The Weekly Standard, 5/17/10, p. 36)
Jefferson, on the other hand, was more influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment that tried to have a civil society without reference to God or religion. He argued that history furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. Yes, the third president of the United States believed strongly in religious liberty, but he believed in this liberty as a natural right, not as a God-given prerogative.
In a very real sense, the history of religion in the public square of American life has been a tug-of-war between Washington and Jefferson for the past two hundred years—and since 1963, when the Supreme Court prohibited our public schools from sponsoring prayer, Jefferson has been winning. Judge Crabb’s recent ruling is only one in a long line of decisions that push God out of public life. Rest assured, Crabb’s ruling will be tested and ruled upon by the Supreme Court. Next year we may or may not have a NDOP. But what should those of us who love and follow Jesus think and do in the meantime? I have three words of advice.
First, don’t panic. We don’t trust in horses or chariots or even in the American experiment. We trust in Christ, and we are citizens of heaven. And Crabb does have a point: prayer is, perhaps, far too powerful to domesticate and trivialize. A nationalized prayer meeting strips prayer of its potency and power because in a pluralistic society we must give everyone—whether Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or Presbyterian—the chance to say the invocation. To put it another way, it would be hard to imagine Elijah or John the Baptist being invited to pray at the next presidential inauguration. Our gatekeepers see to it that those who pray in public do so politely.
Second, don’t give up. We could throw in the proverbial towel, endorse a purely secular state, and flee to our religious hiding places to wait for Jesus to return. If we do this, in effect, we lose our place at the table of public discourse. Such a posture toward government says, “We give up.” Christ and the church would then operate outside the realm of politics. The church is the church and the state is the state and the two don’t intersect. But despair shouldn’t be our refuge, and withdrawal shouldn’t be our posture. We still find ourselves caring about our public schools, fighting against abortion, standing against pornography, and voting for our favorite candidate. We care deeply who is our president and who serves on our city council. This is how it should be. When God saves us, he saves us in our own particular context. The fact that we are created in God’s image makes it impossible not to care about the cleanliness of the air we breathe, and the clear-cutting of forests we will never see.
Third, keep praying. If we believe that prayer is powerful and effective, and if we believe that God’s will and work are effected through prayer, then Judge Crabb’s ruling and Franklin Graham’s being disinvited to lead a prayer meeting in the Pentagon should only encourage us to keep doing what the secularists among us are so afraid of. Prayer is the powerful and subversive weapon of the church. Prayer changes people and shapes nations. So, brothers and sisters, let us pray. Let us pray boldly and consistently, Your kingdom come, your will be done. Washington won’t stand a chance.