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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soundoff (183 Responses)
  1. bet sportsgirl

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    May 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
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    May 3, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  3. f geason

    again we fussing over dump stuff. we open all our court in america by putting our hand on the bible. we put god on our money. we take our oath of office by swearing to god. god is america. if you are a non believer ok keep it to your self, if you have no religion again keep it to your self for the rest of us put god first and do not be scared to say your belief

    May 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  4. Mario

    no one should have a refusal feeling to give thanks to God and request for His help. To have that feeling is to have the full influence and manipulaton of the spirit of the antichrist. satan. If you follow him you will to your death, and not praying to God brings consecuences, bad ones to a nation and a people or all people. There is a Lord of the Heavens and Earth, He is God Almighty, and He loves the world and it's people and it's only the bad force against him called satan who teaches the world God created contrary to what God is really about and what He expects of us. Satan has the battle of hatred against God. If you hate to pray or gather with others to get wisdom and protection from our Lord, then you have a problem deeply and are siding with satan. You best get right with God. No one has their unlimited days in life. Life runs out. And praying is the best thing we can do to get right with God. Seek Him and you shall find Him. But seek Him with an honest humble heart, and repent, we are a nation of unrepentant sinners who truly have nothing to do with God but satan. Repent and pray and you will see the best results for the better and the good of all involved in God's work.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  5. Mario

    If a Commander in Chief chooses to pray to God for the wellbeing of our world and our nation and our people, that is the best thing He can do to let God guide him and his nation right. We are to pray at all hours, every day, giving thanks to God for everything and being humble under His might, showing respect and humble request of protection as well as guidance. We are to obey and praying is obeying God. A President who prays to God is a Christian president. A president who asks God for His protection is an abnormally good president. God never fails to help His children but specially when they request it. It is just also the terms one prays with, which sometimes deterr God's response. One should interpret the parabole of the tree of the good fruit and the tree of the bad fruit, to interpret who is really behind God and can ask God. However God does request that his humanity pray to HIm only and at all times. If you do otherwise it is to your demise. And if you promote that its wrong to call on God infront of a nation, that makes you the antichrist.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  6. Mario

    this article? = satan speaking against God
    you are either for God or against God

    May 10, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • John

      Screw god.

      May 16, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  7. Matt

    The U.S. motto is "In God We Trust", which also include in U$ Dollar$. The U.S. has the world's largest Christian population, which counts 78-85% of the total population. So shut up atheists!!

    May 9, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • Q

      Sorry, but until the 1st Amendment's Establishment Clause is removed, official State endorsement of religion is unconst-tutional. It's really that simple. E pluribus unum is a far better motto and ironically, the other side of the official U.S. seal's "Annuit coeptis" apparently references the wrong deity. From wiki:

      "Annuit cœptis and the other motto on the reverse of the Great Seal, Novus ordo seclorum, can both be traced to lines by the Roman poet Virgil. Annuit cœptis comes from the Aeneid, book IX, line 625, which reads, Jupiter omnipotens, audacibus annue cœptis. It is a prayer by Ascanius, the son of the hero of the story, Aeneas, which translates to, "Jupiter Almighty, favour [my] bold undertakings.""

      Clearly, we're one nation, under Jupiter?

      May 10, 2011 at 12:53 am |
    • friedrich

      The phrase "In God We Trust" was engraved in the fifties during the Red Scare started by WI senator, Joseph McCarthy. Further more, remember our Statue of Liberty? Well, she's a Pagan goddess. Why is it also that our government buildings are shaped after Greek and Roman Pagan temples and not medieval Christian churches? I can go on, seriously. Also, a study shows that the more religous a country the more unhappy it is. Denmark, Norway and other European/Socialist contries are the happiest countries, the most religous countries like Iraq or Pakastan are practically hell-holes. Infact, our founding fathers found our nation upon Pagan values. So, shut up Christians

      June 8, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  8. Karin

    What individuals such as Adelina fail to comprehend is that their religious belief system is based on a requirement of (faith alone). A word used by the religious due to no supportive evidence. Their assertions are completely without merit and nonsensical!

    May 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  9. Karin

    Percentage's in my mind have no bearing. There was a time that the masses believed the world was flat. There was a time that the masses believed in multiple gods. There was a time that the masses believed ....

    They were ALL WRONG!!!

    May 9, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  10. Adelina

    If America is not Christian, it is not America.

    May 8, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Bullsh1t Detector

      If Adelina is not totally insane, she is not Adelina. Or Justina. Or Frederica. Or all her other names, including her real one.

      May 8, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • Q

      Please show me a single reference to Christ in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Const-itution.

      May 8, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • Adelina

      No Christianity = No America. Q, read it yourself. America exists to honor God and to spread the Christian religion. Present atheistic, hedonistic Americans symbolize Cain. Cain killed Abel, but Seth continued, not Cain.

      May 9, 2011 at 1:58 am |
    • Adelina

      Q, there are actually many things in life, but you must study it yourself. Be always humble before God and ask His help for wisdom and understanding. You are a mere creature who are allowed to know only a tiny fraction in this universe. Those who have Christ have everything.

      May 9, 2011 at 2:02 am |
    • Adelina

      @B-1-D, you are just another dirty mouth(Look at your own user name) who cannot take in a single fact if you don't like it. I feel sorry for you. There were days when the American language was cleaner and the American people more honor-bound though you were not told about it at all. The world that God has created has more wonderful mysteries than you can ever imagine. When you deny the Creator, you miss out everything.

      May 9, 2011 at 2:11 am |
    • Q

      Again, "Please show me a single reference to Christ in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Const-itution". Your responses thus far are just as vacuous as your first post...

      May 10, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • Q

      "Those who have Christ have everything." Apparently, it's "Everything" except a copy of either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Const-tution. I could also add in your case, "Everything" except an ability to offer a coherent response to a simple question.

      May 10, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  11. Rogue

    This illegal proclamation should be destroyed immediately.
    America has no need of treason. Christians must have a need, though...

    May 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • ufo

      Free speech only applies to religious zealots in the "land of the free" ?

      May 9, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  12. myklds

    Everything about religion is offensive for Atheists. It's no surprise, either a big deal, they only represent 2 to 3% of the population anyway.

    May 7, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Mykids.. You are incorrect. There are many stories of billboards being put up with simple statements that say " Dont believe in god, you are not alone".put up by free thinking groups. these have been pulled because religious groups think they are "offensive". yet religious groups have bill boards all over the place declaring god is real..What you do not like is your faith being questioned.. it cannot stand scrutiny and reason. I would also question your 3-4 % number.. remember an atheist is some one who does not believe in a god, thats all.. and you dont believe in all of them either.. so you are an atheist as far as some are concerned.

      May 7, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Don't Let The Facts Get in the Way of Your Delusion

      4% of the American population describes themselves as Atheist, 15% as non-religious. Those are fast-growing demographic groups, by the way, both doubling in the last decade. It will continue growing due to the behavior of religious people. One study on the atti-tudes of 16-29 year old Americans towards Christianity showed that about 38% of all those who were not regular churchgoers had negative impressions of Christianity, and especially evangelical Christianity, associating it with conservative political activism, hypocrisy, anti-ho-mose-xuality, and judgmentalism. About 17% had "very bad" perceptions of Christianity. The weirdness of American religion and the behavior of Islam has caused atheism rates in Europe to grow subtantially.

      As a demographic group, every unbiased study ever done finds they are more educated, less likely to commit major crime, less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less authoritarian, less likely to support war and torture.

      Yes, I can see why so many people are bigotted against individuals who behave like that.

      May 7, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Reality

      The global breakdown:


      Religion>>>>> Adherents

      Christianity 2.1 billion

      Islam 1.5 billion

      Irreligious/agnostic/atheism 1.1 billion

      Hinduism 900 million

      Chinese traditional religion 394 million

      Buddhism 376 million

      Animist religions 300 million

      African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million

      Sikhism 23 million

      Juche 19 million

      Spiritism 15 million

      Judaism 14 million

      Baha'i 7 million

      Jainism 4.2 million

      Shinto 4 million

      Cao Dai 4 million

      Zoroastrianism 2.6 million

      Tenrikyo 2 million

      Neo-Paganism 1 million

      Unitarian Universalism 800,000

      Rastafari Movement 600,000

      May 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • civiloutside

      So out of curiosity, how large a percentage of the population does a group need to be before it's no longer ok to violate their Consti-tuitional rights?

      May 7, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • WhichGarbageDidYouGetYourFigures?

      Research show that 93% of the americans are believers.

      May 8, 2011 at 6:55 am |
    • Don't Let The Facts Get in the Way of Your Delusion

      The percentages of non-religious Americans comes from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, whose 54,000 people surveyed far outnumbered the 2000 people in the Gallup Poll that you are using. Far more reliable.

      The atti-tudes of young people comes from a combined Barn Group/Fermi Project study. Those are both religious organizatios, by the way

      May 8, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
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About this blog

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.