Members of the House of Representatives often spend their days crafting legislation or deliberating proposed bills. But recently a group of about 40 members decided to branch out and take on a duty usually left to America’s clergy: calling people to prayer.
The “Congressional Prayer Caucus” held a press conference March 28 to encourage Americans to sign up for five-minute blocs of prayer, with the goal of ensuring that someone is praying for the nation around the clock.
The group, led by U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), is exclusively Christian and mostly Republican. Forbes said his hope is that “God will hear our prayers and heal our land.”
Another caucus member, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), told attendees, “We deal with all kinds of problems in Congress, but I’m still like a little kid in Sunday School. Jesus is always the answer.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) beseeched the nation to “glorify the name of Jesus Christ.”
The event excited TV preacher Pat Robertson, who aired an interview with Forbes on the “700 Club” March 28. During the exchange with Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) host Lee Webb, Forbes called the prayer event “historic” and added, “We just believe we’re at a crucial time in our history.”
After the interview, Robertson, noting that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Virginia by Europeans, remarked, “What a time to call this nation to prayer, to repent for what we have done and to say, ‘God, you have blessed us and we thank you but we need to reaffirm the covenant that was made in 1607, 400 years ago.’”
The next day, Robertson returned to the theme. He pointed out that Forbes represents the area of Virginia where CBN is located and gushed, “Randy Forbes, outstanding legislator, called that prayer group together, and I tell you, that is a signal for America that with the troubles ahead of us, the answer is the Lord.”
Forbes is a reliable vote for the Religious Right. The Family Research Council’s most recent ranking of members of Congress gives him a 100 percent.
A small crowd of mostly Hill staffers and tourists gathered to watch the outdoor event on the West Lawn of the Capitol. Remarks were often punctuated by “Amen!” “Yes!” and “Thank You, Jesus!” from the crowd.
Despite the make-up of the group, Forbes insisted that his colleagues were calling people of all faiths to pray. He said the caucus is willing to “let God sort out” which were the “right” prayers, done in the “right” way.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn was not impressed with the display of public piety.
“Lawmakers should stick to their constitutional duties and leave religious decisions to individuals,” said Lynn, who is a United Church of Christ minister. “Congressional meddling in religion is an affront to the First Amendment principle of church-state separation. Religion is too important to become a political football.”
Continued Lynn, “There are a host of political issues of utmost importance to Americans. Rep. Forbes and other members of Congress should work on those and leave decisions about religion to the American people.”
In a press statement about the event, AU pointed out that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed government meddling in prayer.
Jefferson refused to call for days of prayer as president because he believed that government officials had no business calling people to pray.
He once observed, “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercises…. Fasting and praying are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has the right to determine for itself the times for these exercise and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets, and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
Madison issued a few religious proclamations but later regretted having done so.
He wrote, “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion. Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation.”