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The National Day of Reason Doesn’t Have a Prayer Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 29 April 2011

May 5, 2011, is the National Day of Prayer. It has been an annual American observance since Congress enacted it in 1952. The law simply 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.”

Since 2003, secular groups in the U.S. have called for a “National Day of Reason,” to be held on the same day as the National Day of Prayer, “to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.” These secular groups also oppose the National Day of Prayer for several reasons, one of which is that: “it makes those who don’t pray feel like second-class citizens. Why set aside a national day that needlessly excludes?”

It is, of course, no fun to feel like a second-class citizen, and who would not sympathize with what our secular friends have had to endure? Who, except the heartless and the stupid, would needlessly exclude our fellow Americans of logophile endowment? I am sure that those of us less gifted and less rational cannot truly comprehend the agony of being saddled with the burden of cognitive and moral superiority. It must be difficult to live in a country in which you think of virtually all your neighbors and fellow citizens as irrational bigots seeking to impose on you second-class citizenship. Everywhere you go – the grocery store, the gym, Sam’s Club, or even school – you are surrounded by logophobic simpletons who are too dense to see that you and your friends are the proper custodians of Reason. And to make matters worse, these devotees of depraved devotion – the very ones who pray and seek to humble themselves before God – are taking America into an age of theocratic tyranny.

In this chilling nightmare scenario, religiously-motivated citizens would be permitted to shape public policy by means of the democratic process. Shockingly, on matters of public concern, they would be treated with the same dignity and respect as non-religiously-motivated citizens, however difficult that is to imagine from your office in New Haven or Hyde Park. For example, if a group of religiously-motivated citizens sought to protect the unborn from unjust harm – whether by abortion or embryo-destruction research – on the basis of reasons they thought sound, they would be able to pass legislation to accomplish this goal.

The National Day of Reason crowd believes that such political activities should be absolutely forbidden in a liberal democracy. Why? Well, they never quite tell us. All they say is that they oppose “religiously motivated restrictions on access to reproductive services and information” as well as “restrictions on important scientific research on the basis of religious objections.” Because the custodians of Reason would never use the adverb “religiously” or the adjective “religious” as a substitute for an actual argument or as a means to trigger the anti-religious bigotry of their readers, for such a tactic would be unreasonable, please discard that thought if it has crossed your mind. As we all know, Reason’s champions never, ever employ rhetoric that does not stay within the bounds of rational discourse. Name-calling, guilt-by-association, and misrepresenting positions with which one disagrees would never pass through the keyboard, let alone the lips, of a bona fide member of the cerebral aristocracy.

Nevertheless, the custodians of Reason are absolutely certain that no religiously motivated citizen can ever have a legitimate or defensible reason for restricting access to reproductive services and important scientific research. Because the “National Day of Reason exists to inspire the secular community to be visible and active on this day to set the right example for how to effect positive change,” there is no better way to secure that inspiration and set a positive example than to single out religiously motivated citizens as outside the confines of civil society. In this way, the custodians of Reason will no longer feel like second-class citizens. I am sure someone somewhere feels their pain.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is the author of  Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice.
 

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Comments (18)Add Comment
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written by Patrick, April 29, 2011
I've noticed as well that "religion" seems to be a kind of idée fixe or nervous tic among the aggressively secular. What's most annoying, to me, about this is that "religion" (or "organized religion" for those who are "spiritual but not religious") never gets defined.

One way to define "religion" that makes some sense to me is, following Mircea Eliade, "the division the world into sacred and profane." Under this definition then, the National Day of Reason is simply another religious holiday, one where people worship their own minds instead of their Creator.
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written by Mark, April 29, 2011
Isn't it strange that so-called free thinkers so often want to restrict freedom of thought? freedom of action? Why is that atheism is so often linked with tyranny?
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written by Gary, April 29, 2011
Matthew 5 is talking about one's private prayers; Jesus never intended to restrict public prayer as a group. You're taking that out of context, as does Crabb. You provide anecdotal evidence (or rather, parrot that provided by Crabb) against the Day of Prayer, but that really doesn't prove that the holiday is as ineffectual as you make it out to be.

Did you do a fair job gathering counterevidence from friends who are religious? After all, you'd have to listen to them in order to get both sides in the first place.

Setting apart a particular day or time for prayer is completely biblical; it was done in the Old Testament as well as the book of Acts. This allows coordination of prayer as a group as opposed to individual prayers, which of course can be done at any day and time.

Once again: you're trying to beat us at our own game. Do you really think you know what you're talking about? Pragmatically, Paul was saying "don't stop praying." You're just taking that at face value because it bolsters the case you're trying to make, even if it violates the author's intent.

I'm sorry, Grump, but a few verses out of context, a sprinkle of one-sided anecdotes, the decision of a lower-level court judge, and a dash of inflammatory rhetoric ("bible thumping") just isn't convincing.
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written by Grump, April 30, 2011
Gary, I was merely trying to take a more objective tack. Remember that from 1789-1952 there was no such Day. Characterization of Graham as a "bible thumper" would not be considered perjorative by some Catholics, especially those who never read the Bible.


To repeat, pray all you want. But the government has no business telling people to pray. The fact that we are arguing about this only proves Crabb's point that the issue is contentious rather than unifying.

How do you know what Jesus "intended." I take His words at face value. But then again, the bible is an old fiddle on which you can play any tune, isn't it?
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written by Other Joe, April 30, 2011
To Grump. Words have been so smeared of meaning that it is difficult to communicate across the Grand Canyon of rhetorical excess - yet, one tries. Small thoughts follow. 1. Prayer was never mandated, but invited. 2. We were created as a Christian nation. 3. God guarantees what worldly rights we might have. Nothing else makes sense; for man granted rights may be turned aside when convenient for man's latest necessity. I see nothing wrong with an invitation to give thanks and praise to a power even greater than the neo-lords of Washington. It might put some of their mandates in a more helpful context.
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written by DPierre, April 30, 2011
Great article.
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written by Deacon Jim Stagg, April 30, 2011
Mr. Grump,

Please do not smear Catholics, many of whom hold Reverend Graham in high regard.

That comment is even beneath you....of all people.
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written by Deacon Jim Stagg, April 30, 2011
By the bye, Francis Beckwith, an excellent article (I was distracted in my earlier post by some consternation).

Satire can never be overused against those who are arrogant.

Thank you!
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written by Gary, April 30, 2011
Grump: to refer to what someone does as "bible thumping" is pejorative, as a Catholic commenter just mentioned. You once again fall to anecdotal evidence of what you say "some" Catholics do or don't think.

While your comments about the lack of a specific national Day of Prayer are not anecdotal, your other comments were. You seem unaware of the concept of coordinated prayer as an assembly, or of occurrences of it in the Bible.

With regards to figuring out authorial intent, that's a tricky matter. ANYTHING is a fiddle that can be played to any tune so long as you ignore context. The Bible is not alone in this, though its cultural distance from us makes it more susceptible since we are further removed from its original context. That is why we need to increase biblical literacy.

The first half of Matthew 6 revolves around three ideas:
1. Don't show off when giving charity
2. Don't show off when praying
3. Don't show off when fasting

So what's the point? Don't show off. Jesus gives specific examples of how Pharisees would stand on street corners and pray just to get recognition from people (Matthew 6:5). The overall idea of the triad is to avoid selfish gain for recognition. And, while this could be done on a group level, seeking recognition more naturally lends itself to individual actions.

But Jesus didn't say we were supposed to keep our religious activities "private", either. Just move back a chapter and you'll see that Christians are like a lamp in a dark world. A lamp is worthless if it doesn't shine and give light to others. The point is to draw attention to God's goodness, the light, rather than to ourselves as the lamp.

I agree that the government has no business "telling" people to pray, if by "tell" you mean "force" or "command". But if you mean "encourage", then I see nothing wrong with this. Why can't the government encourage people to pray? Prayer is not a political-religious entity that may take over the government, so no church is going to take over the state. It doesn't violate the First Amendment, since "encouraging" neither establishes nor limits religious freedom. You are completely free not to pray, even if you feel uncomfortable or offended. Do you have an inalienable right to feel comfortable or not offended?
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written by Gary, April 30, 2011
America as a Christian nation? The answer is "yes and no". Some were Deists, some were Christian. Some people wanted a theocratic government and others did not. While the theocratic model did not ultimately win out, it was still in the hearts and minds of enough to at least make the case that the nation was heavily influenced by Christianity.

Please keep in mind that the First Amendment forbids *Congress* from passing a law "respecting the establishment of religion". What the President may or may not do is not at stake within the text itself; though the tradition of precedent in how the Constitution has been interpreted does extend this prohibition beyond just Congress, let's try to keep the distinction intact for the sake of clarity.

And on that note: the Constitution, much like the Bible, is difficult to interpret. The actual text: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The President, unlike Congress, does not establish laws. He can, however, speak freely and freely exercise religion (whatever that means). Unless he is on vacation, he is pretty much always "on the clock". To make it so that he may not speak religiously while "on the clock", even based on a concern for how much influence his position gives, would be to abridge his freedom of speech. He may freely encourage something, if he so wishes. And people may freely practice religion, if they so wish.

If we may freely speak and assemble, we may freely set aside a time to assemble for prayer. Which, essentially, is speech. While prayer may indeed be part of "religion" (it probably is correct to say that), it does not "establish" religion.

Given that the founding fathers had rebelled against Britain's theocracy-monarchy, it is helpful to look at how Britain operated then in order to understand what may have motivated the First Amendment. In part, it seems to repeat the 1689 Bill of Rights. And, in part, it seems to oppose the idea that it's OK to have a national church with a quota of members sitting on the House of Lords at any given time -- especially since America refuses class distinctions.

Given that bit of historical context, it would seem plausible that the founding fathers were concerned with the idea of the government becoming subservient to the influence of the upper echelons of a particular church body. And a National Day of Prayer in no way "establishes" any such thing.
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written by Grump, May 01, 2011
Gary, I would concede that much is open to interpretation. Presidents actually can "make law" by issuing executive orders. The First Amendment was shaped in part by the Flushing Remonstrance 80 years earlier, which objected to restraint on religion freedom.

It seems La Fouchecauld's maxim applies here: "Arguments would not last long if the fault were only on one side."
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written by Achilles, May 02, 2011
My dear Grump, John Adams said "Human passions unbridled by morality and religion...would break the stronges cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
The truth isn't open to interpretation, we either call things what they are or call things what they are not, the first is honest and sane, the second is propigated by our universities, media and government.
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written by elizabeth, May 02, 2011
There is nothing more reasonable than to acknowledge that we did not make ourselves.
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written by Debra, May 02, 2011
Being that prayer in one form or another is common to a myriad of religious and spiritual practices by virtually every belief system EXCEPT atheists, a National Day of Prayer, which specifies nothing in regard to the belief set or form of said prayer, can hardly be said to be establishing a state religion in any way, shape, or form.
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written by Gary, May 02, 2011
Grump: apology accepted.
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written by Martin, April 09, 2012
Deacon Stagg,

You're joking, right? A Christian calling secularists arrogant? I suggest you look up "mote", cross reference "plank".
Secularists, generally, are:
pro choice - in everything;
pro responsibility - we don't abdicate that responsibility to an ephemeral, unknowable,entity;
pro knowledge - we don't assume that everything is "god's will"
Wake up, the bible is only a book, written by men who used some stories from Egyptian myth.

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