President Barack Obama marked the National Day of Prayer May 7 by issuing a proclamation but did not host a prayer service at the White House, a move that infuriated the Religious Right.
During his tenure as president, George W. Bush celebrated the National Day of Prayer (NDP) with an event featuring a litany of Religious Right leaders. Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and his wife, Shirley, were frequent guests. Shirley Dobson runs the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private fundamentalist group that sponsors Christians-only prayer meetings around the country.
This year, the White House announced beforehand that there would be no White House event. Obama issued a proclamation, as he is required to do by congressional mandate. The White House told reporters the president would spend some time in private prayer.
“Prayer is something the president does every day,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. “We’re doing a proclamation, which I know that many administrations in the past have done.”
Gibbs added, “That’s the way the president will publicly observe National Prayer Day – privately, he’ll pray as he does every day.”
Religious Right leaders criticized the move. Many of these groups worked assiduously to defeat Obama in November, and some even implied that he’s not really a Christian. Nevertheless, they treated Obama’s decision not to host an event as a snub.
“For those of us who have our doubts about Obama’s faith, no, we did not expect him to have the service,” Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, groused to The Washington Times. “But as president, he should put his own lack of faith aside and live up to the office.”
Wright also carped about a recent comment by Obama that America is not officially a Christian nation.
“That was projecting his own beliefs, but not reflecting what the majority of Americans feel,” Wright said. “It’s almost like Obama is trying to remake America into his own image. This is not a rejection of Shirley Dobson; it’s a rejection of the concept that America is a spiritual nation and its foundation is Judeo-Christian.”
During a press conference in Washington, James Dobson accused Obama of showing a “lack of emphasis on the foundation of prayer on which this country was based.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, commended Obama for the move.
“I am pleased that President Obama has made this decision,” asserted Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a press statement. “The president is required by federal law to declare a National Day of Prayer, but there is no requirement that a special event be held at the White House in observance of this event.
“During the Bush years, the Dobsons and other Religious Right leaders were given special access to the White House,” Lynn added. “That seems to have come to an end, and I’m glad.”
Obama, in his proclamation, called on Americans “to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings and to ask for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection for this land that we love.”
The president saluted the men and women of the armed forces and added, “We recognize that it is because of them that we continue to live in a Nation where people of all faiths can worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience.”
Americans United opposes the NDP as a matter of constitutional principle.
In its statement, Lynn observed, “Congress should never have mandated a National Day of Prayer. Americans don’t need the government telling them when to pray and what to pray for. But if the federal government is going to set aside a prayer day, it should recognize the broad diversity of faiths, not just fundamentalist Christians.”
In past years, Americans United has criticized the NDP Task Force for telling event organizers to not allow non-Christians to speak and for issuing materials that promote a bogus “Christian nation” view of American history.
NDP events took place in many states and communities. In Richmond, Va., Gov. Tim Kaine told a crowd of about 70 that he relies on prayer during difficult times. Some activists with Americans United staged a small protest.
Kaine acknowledged the band, remarking, “They have a right to protest.”