Being an Atheist on the National Day of Prayer

I learn today through my compulsive news feed monitoring that May 6th, 2010 is the ‘National Day of Prayer’ here in the United States. I also learn that it may be the last. Hopefully.

My first inclination was naturally enough to ignore the whole thing. After all, I have chores to do, books to read, and a pleasant walk to the grocery store to make (because I forgot to buy onions last weekend). Why worry about the government poking the non-believer population with a rhetorical stick? Not like it’s the first time.

This year’s different though, and for whatever reason, there’s finally some real resistance to the most powerful government in the world leaning on its citizens to pray.

First, a Federal judge in Wisconsin is filling my transplanted heart with pride, having ruled that the government setting aside a day and telling its citizens to pray flies in the face of the First Amendment, which was supposed to leave such matters up to the individual:

In her ruling, Judge Crabb said that the NDP "serves no purpose but to encourage a religious exercise, making it difficult for a reasonable observer to see the statute as anything other than a religious endorsement." Judge Crabb also wrote: "It bears emphasizing that a conclusion that the establishment clause prohibits the government from endorsing a religious exercise is not a judgment on the value of prayer or the millions of Americans who believe in its power. No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer. . . . However, recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic."

Judge Crabb also ruled that the law "does not have a secular purpose or effect" and does not "survive scrutiny under Lemon and the endorsement test. . . . The statute does not use prayer to further a secular purpose; it endorses prayer for its own sake."

Interestingly enough, none of the mainstream press mentions I found about this controversy mention *why* it came to a head here in Wisconsin: as it turns out, this is the result of a longstanding lawsuit against the White House from the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. It started out suing Bush and Dana Perino, and has since moved on to targeting President Obama, Robert Gibbs and others. (The reason it names the press secretary is because their office issues the annual proclamation)

The FFRF is controversial even here in ultra-liberal Madison, and can come off a bit bristly, but I’d like to offer them a hearty congratulations on this victory.

Second, beyond issues of the appropriateness of government endorsed prayer, the rather seedy nature of the people who run the National Day of Prayer has come to light. First, one of the Graham clan of creepy bible thumpers had to be disinvited to lead an NDP event at the Pentagon after objections over some of his less tolerant positions:

The Army recently rescinded its invitation to Graham to participate in the Pentagon’s Day of Prayer event after he made controversial remarks about Islam.

"True Islam cannot be practiced in this country," he told CNN’s Campbell Brown in December. "You can’t beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they’ve committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries."

Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Graham — son of famed evangelist Billy Graham — called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion."

Whoever could have guessed that mixing the state and religion would lead to a struggle for religious dominance of the state, and fighting amongst the believing population? I’m shocked, shocked!

Well, not that shocked.

In all seriousness, this was especially predictable considering that the people running most of the NDP are a bunch of Grade A Whackjobs:

Yet the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 and led by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, limits its events to people of "Judeo-Christian" heritage. Only Christians are allowed as state coordinators.

Christians say anyone is free to organize a prayer event outside the task force’s purview.

Yes, that’s right; the National Day of Prayer is effectively a Focus on the Family/Dobson bible-thumping clan production… with an annual press release put out on White House letterhead.

Feel squicky yet?

What this ultimately boils down to is a debate over the role of government, not just in religion, but in all matters of personal conscience. Do you really want the government setting aside days for particular belief systems, then handing over its bully pulpit and microphone to whatever crazy/adherent happens to scream the loudest for attention that year? Do you think that the government of a nuclear superpower should ever be used for directly religious ends?

It is therefore also about the gradual infiltration and dismantling of a largely secular government in favor of something very different. Jeft Sharlet has written extensively on this subject, and how seemingly innocuous entanglements of church and state are in fact the vanguard for some truly unsettling movements. (The National Prayer Breakfast, for example, is run by the secretive cult known as ‘The Family’) Meanwhile, Dominionist factions work to subvert the military from within (particularly the Air Force) and turn it into a tool suitable for spreading a grand Christian empire. A recent post on FDL discussed the difficulties of rational decision making under such influences.

Blackwater CEO Erik Prince is another example of the trend, having both his own infamous mercenary army and ties to Timothy LeHaye (of Left Behind fame), James Dobson, the Family Research Council and of course the GOP.

So here we are, on May 6th, 2010, debating the merit of a National Day of Prayer. On one side you have a tiny activist group looking out for the rights of atheists and agnostics in a country that, and let’s not mince words, hates us. On the other you have, at least for the moment, the Obama Administration backing the Grahams and the Dobsons of the world, who would like nothing better than to turn the United States into a theocracy once and for all.

But who knows; maybe next year the first Thursday in May will go without the state sharing a stage with religion.

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