Today, May 3, is the National Day of Prayer. The precise date of observance has varied over the years, but is now formally celebrated on the first Thursday of May. Official recognition by the United State Government has only been in place since 1952. President Harry S. Truman’s endorsement, due to its time of enactment, was more than likely meant to separate observant Americans from atheistic Soviet Communists enemies. Religious belief can draw distinct lines setting it apart from others, but it is not necessarily defensive in nature. Faith can be heartfelt and motivated by sincere convictions.
Presidents since George Washington have specified certain days for the purpose of prayer. Often, prayer has been formally encouraged in times of great strain and national turmoil, frequently in times of war. Each of us, regardless of how religious we identify ourselves, often turns to a Divine presence in stressful, similar circumstances. If we were inclined to reject the practice wholesale, context aside, arguments against the National Day of Prayer might ring truer.
As a believer in God and a Christian Quaker, I appreciate our nation’s once-a-year formal acknowledgement of faith. Unlike many conservative believers, I don’t believe that our nation was specifically designed to be Christian or even religious. If the Founders of this country had wanted to establish a Christian nation, they would have done that very thing from the outset and was not a clerical error. Omitting the formal presence of religion would have been a rather gigantic oversight, all told.
There are, very deliberately, no references to Scripture in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. This is even more astounding when one considers that in the late 18th Century, religion held a cultural importance and priority that it does not today.
At the outset, two political parties emerged from the more-or-less unified consensus of the American Revolution. One was the Federalist Party. The Federalists were nominally headed by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, in particular, was leery of a total lack of religious expression, believing it to be the first steps towards cultural, moral anarchy. The French Revolution then raging across the Atlantic reached a radical phase, abolishing religion altogether and sending clergymen by the score to the guillotine.
The Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson was more skeptical of religion. Though Jefferson was not an atheist or bereft of religious expression, Federalist newspapers and pamphlets made routine accusations of these very same offenses. Republican doggerel fired back, increasing the putrid stench of an era even more hostile and partisan than our own. In its pure state, American religion has always been a largely private matter, only becoming a public one in tumultuous circumstances.
Now, in the 21st Century, a Freethought society called the Freedom from Religion Foundation seeks to overturn the National Day of Prayer. Believing itself to be thoroughly persecuted by religion in any form, its doctrine sees belief as mere superstition and an unfair repression of basic human liberty. The society displays a sign outside the Wisconsin State Capital in Madison during the Christmas Season. It reads as follows:
At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
Freedom from Religion Foundation cause certain faith groups, usually conservative and Christian, to respond forcefully in reply. What we see before us today is an over-correction. The pendulum never swings towards the middle, as reason would surely dictate. Instead, it swings too far in one direction and too far another. Open conflict rarely provides a sensible, logical compromise. The overheated rhetoric of partisan divisiveness reflects fear, over-theatricality, and psychic projection. What it does not produce is a sensible compromise.
However, the paranoia of the Christian Right has taken this argument into very unhealthy territory. Some faith groups purport to speak for everyone, particularly every believer. Among many mainstream Christians, I’m considered something of a heretic. I believe in a strict separation between Church and State. I take Jesus’ ministry not as a justification for the way things always have been, but as a still relevant challenge to authority. As a Quaker, I believe in the equality of men and women. I do not interpret Pauline admonitions towards homosexuality and a proper role of women in the church as both are often defined.
Atheistic, often militant associations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation contain a strong core of wounded ex-believers. While I sympathize with their circumstances, I do not believe religion in all its permutations has injured them. Misguided individuals and misguided ideology has created these problems.
Freethought groups can be as overzealous as the religious groups from which members initially fled. Part of peaceful expression is a refusal to resort to overt stereotyping and backbiting. Politicians and political parties have sought to unfairly slander each other for a good long while, but the practice serves no positive end, nor any positive gain.
We are too busy trying to destroy the opposition, to snuff out the very life of those who oppose us. Though a civilized people, we have only within a few generations given up the sword for the pen to best resolve debates. Now we fight a war with words, hurting each other intellectually, but also emotionally. Words harm us in ways we may not understand upon their first utterance.
It is Freedom from Hyperbole that we require. Rather than waging war inside a courtroom, we might first understand our opposition. What pulls us apart is simpler than one might think.