A little less than a month ago, a U.S. District Judge in Wisconsin came to the self-evident conclusion that the National Day of Prayer, established by Congress and proclaimed annually by the President of the United States since 1952, was unconstitutional. The U.S. Justice Department is appealing the ruling, meaning that this year’s National Day of Prayer is allowed to go ahead today as scheduled. I’m not sure how long the appeal is expected to take, but I do hope it’s resolved before next year.
I want today to be the United States’ last National Day of Prayer. We’ve now had fifty-eight of them, and that’s more than enough. One was too many.
Not being a believer myself — and having a hostile attitude toward religion in general — it’s tempting to speak out against the National Day of Prayer for purely selfish reasons. I think it would be a wonderful thing if Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Scientology, and every other modern faith joined the polytheisms of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans in the Mythology section. But there are far more compelling motivations for permanently trashing the National Day of Prayer, and all government-sponsored religious observances, than my personal atheism.
A strict separation of church and state isn’t necessary in a free society to avoid offending atheists. Thomas Jefferson, who introduced the metaphor of a wall of separation, believed in God, and lived in a time when strong, open atheism was extremely rare. The purpose of church/state separation isn’t to protect the atheists from the church. It’s to protect everybody from the church, including the other churches.
The most important job of any democratic government is to guarantee the rights of the people who empower it — all of the people who empower it, regardless of their religious affiliations or lack thereof. To do that, the government must be able to represent the interests of everyone, and that means it has to be as neutral as possible. The humans who operate it won’t be neutral — they’ll act and advocate in the interests of their political parties, the voters in their particular states or districts, the departments in which they work, themselves — but the government itself, as defined by the Constitution and our Code of Law, has to be.
That means no government religious observance. That means no National Day of Prayer, no National Prayer Breakfast, no employing chaplains in Congress or the military, no special tax exemption for churches, no “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and no “In God We Trust” on the money — no government observance of religion, period.
That doesn’t mean an avowedly atheist government. It doesn’t even mean an agnostic government. It means a government that is totally silent on the issue of religion.
Achieving that ideal remains an uphill battle. People have been sledgehammering holes in the wall of separation almost from the moment it was erected over two-hundred years ago. But those are holes that can be repaired. Hopefully the patch applied by the U.S. District Court in Wisconsin last month will prove a permanent one, and the first of many.
Incidentally, doing away with the federally-recognized National Day of Prayer will do absolutely nothing to prevent churches all over the country from coordinating with one another and continuing to observe days of prayer as often as it suits them. If, in lieu of actually doing something to affect change in the world, you’d rather pray about it, that’s your right. It should always be your right. But the government of a free society cannot have anything to do with it.
If we want to be a country of ideals, we’ll have to start living up to this one eventually. We have a long way to go yet. Doing away with the National Day of Prayer is as good a first step as any.