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.