Do you think Americans should ask God to grant George W. Bush the power to fly? House majority whip Tom DeLay, the ability to predict the future? Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, X-ray vision? In a prayer written for the National Day of Prayer, May 2, the Reverend Lloyd Olgivie, the Senate chaplain, asks God to “bless our President, Congress, and all our leaders with supernatural power.” He didn’t beseech God to endow them with strength and wisdom–a more reasonable request–but to make them superheroes.
The National Day of Prayer (or NDP, as it is known to religion insiders) is an annual event established by an act of Congress five decades ago. The point was to encourage Americans to pray for their nation–at least once every twelve months. Each year, the president and the governors issue proclamations encouraging such importuning. And the NDP has become a major ritual for the religious right. For years, the National Day of Prayer Task Force–a nonprofit group run by Shirley Dobson, the wife of religious right leader James Dobson–has been pushing this prayer-holiday and organizing events.
This year, Dobson’s NDP Task Force claimed it had 40,000 volunteers and coordinators putting together prayer events–including what the group called a “national observance” at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC. Its website noted that the headliners booked for the Washington gathering were radio evangelist Ravi Zacharias and youth evangelist Josh McDowell, both advocates of apologetics–which Marshall calls “a branch of theology devoted to the defense of the divine origin and authority of Christianity.” That is, the belief that Christianity is the only way. The other main draw: virtue-czar and Ariel Sharon-backer William Bennett.
Anything wrong with this? The NDP Task Force states, “this government-sanctioned day is offered to all Americans.” Yet the national observance, organized by the task force, was hardly designed to reflect the diverse religious nature of the United States–or even that of Christianity. This is not surprising, for on its website, the NDP Task Force also says its efforts “are executed in alignment with its Christian beliefs.” Which means a group that is devoted to a certain type of evangelical Christianity and that excludes others from its commemoration of the Day of Prayer was given the privilege of hosting the day’s main event in a congressional facility. (In 1999, the NDP Task Force said that every one of its volunteers “must be a Christian” with a “personal relationship with Christ.”) And the prayer Olgivie, a Presbyterian, wrote–which the NDP Task Force promoted as the prayer to read at noon–said, “We commit ourselves to be faithful to You as Sovereign of our land and as our personal Lord and Savior.” Such an invocation, with its reference to “Savior,” smacked of a Christian devotional.
A secularist has reason to question the basic premise of the National Day of Prayer. Should Congress, the president, and governors officially encourage religious worship? Might that undermine the separation of church and state? But, moreover, the NDP Task Force has angled to turn the NDP into a day of Christian prayer. And government officials have gone along. US appeals court Judge David Sentelle, Representative Mike McIntyre, a North Carolina Democrat, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, and Captain Leroy Gilbert, the Coast Guard chaplain, were scheduled to participate in the Washington event–which would highlight a Christian-oriented prayer written by a government-paid chaplain.
The NDP Task Force cites a long history of support for a prayer day. The Continental Congress asked the colonies to pray for wisdom as the new country was being formed. In 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” In 1952, a congressional act, signed by President Truman, declared an annual day of prayer. And in 1988, President Reagan approved an amended law that set the first Thursday of every May as the day for America to pray.
But some founders were not keen on this sort of government promotion of religion. James Madison opposed governmental “religious proclamations” for several reasons, including, “They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion.” And Thomas Jefferson, in an 1808 letter to the Reverend Samuel Miller, said, “Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General Government.” He was even against recommending a day of fasting and prayer. Doing so, he explained, would “indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from.” He was worried that even a suggestion from the government could be taken the wrong way: “It must be meant, too, that this recommendation [of a day of prayer] is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription, perhaps in public opinion.”
At the moment, Jefferson and Madison are losing the debate. Shirley Dobson and Pat Robertson are winning. But what these founders might have feared–a national prayer day slipping into a day that emphasizes one religion over another–has been happening.
I called the Reverend Olgivie to ask him about his prayer–its Christian nature, and its call for supernatural powers for Bush and others. The fellow who answered the phone at his Senate office said the Reverend was too busy to talk. This aide refused to give me his full name or to provide budget information for Olgivie’s office. “It’s in the public records,” he said and turned down my request for assistance in locating the figure. (For the record, the amount is $288,000.) I can understand why Olgivie, a former California television minister, might be shy around reporters. Last year, The Wall Street Journal published a piece on him revealing that his Senate office had accepted tens of thousands of dollars from Christian nonprofits, some of which was used to buy copies of his books he then distributed around the Senate.
Still, I would like to hear Olgivie explain his prayer, particularly what supernatural powers he wants to see bestowed upon the president. Might it help to have Congress pass legislation suggesting a particular course of action in this regard? Such an act, of course, would have to be non-binding..