Prayer, Piety and Politics: How the National Day of Prayer Became a Religious Right Platform for Opposing Church-State Separation

By Benen, Steve | Church & State, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Prayer, Piety and Politics: How the National Day of Prayer Became a Religious Right Platform for Opposing Church-State Separation


Benen, Steve, Church & State


Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, wanted her audience of over 300 to clearly understand why they had assembled in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., May 2.

"If you've come today to this prayer gathering to hear some well known people, or maybe to meet them, or to just come to an event, you've come to the wrong place," Dobson said. "We are gathered here today with solemn and serious hearts; we've come for the Lord.... We are a hurting nation and we are here to ask for God's forgiveness."

With that, Dobson kicked off the 51st annual observance of the National Day of Prayer (NDP) in the nation's capital. Thousands of state and local events took place nationwide as well.

For supporters of church-state separation, the fact that the NDP even exists as a government-endorsed exercise is troubling. Those concerns were amplified, however, by the bold intermingling of government, politics and religion that dominated this year's activities.

The NDP was established as an annual event by an act of Congress in 1952. Before then, there were occasional instances of official prayer proclamations by Congress and presidents. In 1988, at the behest of the Religious Right, Congress officially set the date as the first Thursday in May.

Over the last decade, a private Religious Right group known as the National Day of Prayer Task Force has effectively taken the lead in organizing and promoting NDP events, and the organization coordinates virtually all of the prayer day activities in Washington, D.C., and around the country. The Task Force claims that it helped set up about 40,000 observances of the NDP this year.

The NDP Task Force is headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right radio broadcaster James Dobson, and operates from the headquarters of his Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Task Force's National Advisory Committee features well-known political and religious figures, including Bill Bright, Chuck Colson, former Christian Coalition President Don Hodel, Kay Cole James, Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.). The list also includes Karen Santorum, Rep. Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) wife, and Janet Ashcroft, Attorney General John Ashcroft's wife. The group receives no public funds, and is incorporated as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization.

If the goal of the Task Force was to seize control of the National Day of Prayer to advance a Religious Right message and agenda, it has succeeded. Though the group does not have formal ties with the government, it has assumed a pseudo-official role. This year, for example, a congressional office building served as the venue for the Capitol Hill NDP event and it reflected a fundamentalist Christian bent.

The occasion featured representatives of all three branches of the federal government, a military chaplain to represent the armed forces and the chaplains from the U.S. House and Senate.

Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie, who offered the "prayer of blessing" at the NDP event, drew the ire of First Amendment advocates for his work with the Religious Right group.

Ogilvie, a minister who serves as a pastor to members of the Senate, is a government employee whose salary is financed by taxpayers. (The current federal budget allots $288,000 to Ogilvie's office.) Nevertheless, Ogilvie wrote a "Prayer For America" for the NDP Task Force this year. Ogilvie's prayer was written to "acknowledge [God's] sovereignty" and asks God to grant "supernatural powers" to the president and Congress. It commits the nation "to be faithful to You as Sovereign of our land and as our personal Lord and Savior."

"We rededicate ourselves to be one nation under You," Ogilvie's prayer says. "In You we trust. We reaffirm our accountability to You, to the absolutes of Your Commandments, and to justice in our society. …

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