Day of Prayer observed as always, with reverence and controversy
May 5th, 2011
04:36 PM ET

Day of Prayer observed as always, with reverence and controversy

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN) - President Obama bowed his head silently Thursday after laying a wreath at the 9/11 memorial at ground zero in lower Manhattan.  He was in part playing the role of "pastor in chief," taking a moment with the nation to remember the fallen in the decade-long struggle against terrorism.

Last Friday, before he addressed the country late Sunday night to announce Osama bin Laden was dead, Obama issued his yearly proclamation on the National Day of Prayer.  Thursday marked the 60th observance of the day in the United States. In his proclamation, Obama called all Americans to pray for, among other things, the men and women in the military, to ask God for "sustenance and guidance," and to pray for those affected by natural disasters.

"The most popular function for presidents is chief of state, because it's the unifying function," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.  "They love it  because it unifies people and it seems less political than when they have to make tough policy choices as head of government or brazenly political choices as head of party."

The National Day of Prayer was mandated by Congress in 1952 and President Harry Truman proclaimed July 4, 1952, as the first National Day of Prayer. Congress amended the law in 1998 and it now states:

"The president shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals."

The day has long been a jewel of conservative Christian groups like the people behind national organizing efforts, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, an independent group not affiliated with the government act based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  The task force is headed by Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

On Thursday, people packed into a standing-room-only event in the gilded Caucus Room at the Cannon House Office Building.  The task force shuttled a series of speakers to the podium, which was draped in red, white and blue flag bunting.

An hour before the president laid the wreath at the 9/11 memorial, Air Force chaplain Brig. Gen. Howard Stendahl prayed for the commander in chief from the podium, "Grant to him by your spirit a great measure of wisdom and understanding, that he may command our nation's military and insurmountable power in the interest of justice, leading to lasting peace."

The speakers list was filed mainly with Christians, who lauded the 60th anniversary of the event.

The task force makes no secret it is a Judeo-Christian organization.  It says on its website, the group "exists to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer, to create appropriate materials, and to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America's leaders and its families."

Republican members of the House ducked in and out of the Caucus Room between votes to sit and listen quietly.  They bowed their heads as the speakers prayed for the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government.

While politicians seem to love it, the National Day of Prayer has long been a thorn in the side of groups who support a separation of church and state.

"When Congress in the 1950s decides to create a day for one kind of religious expression - that it is interfering with religion that ought to be a more private and personal matter - many of us are frankly insulted that Congress thinks it needs to tell us what day to be particularly prayerful," the Rev. Barry Lynn said.  Lynn is the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

This year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit saying the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment's establishment clause.

On April 14 the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, saying the foundation does not have the standing because the law, "does not require any private person to do anything - or for that matter to take any action in response to whatever the president proclaims. If anyone suffers injury, therefore, that person is the president, who is not complaining."

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, said Thursday as she left the National Day of Prayer event that the court had ruled correctly.  "I think it's settled.  Clearly we have the right to pray and we're better off as a nation with prayer," she said as she hurried off to vote.

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that while "the idea of a national day of prayer is a good idea, it is just not government's job to tell us when or where or what to pray."

"It is not the job of the president or the U.S. Congress to mandate an act of religious worship," said Walker, who is an ordained Baptist minister and an attorney.

"I think it's always on the edge of inappropriate when a president thinks he is the pastor in chief instead of the commander in chief," Lynn said, adding that although he wasn't troubled by the president laying the wreath at ground zero, "I do think presidents need to be careful not to assume because they are the leader of the country they are the leader of everyone's religious life."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Belief • Christianity • Church and state • DC • Politics • Religious liberty • United States

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.