The National Day of Reason Doesn’t Have a Prayer

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

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).