National Day of Prayer has roots in false history, anti-communist fears

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson (right) is joined by congressional leaders including now-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (left) for a 2009 observance of the National Day of Prayer on Capitol Hill. The National Prayer Committee and Task Force, founded in 1972, moved to the headquarters of Focus on the Family in 1989. Shirley Dobson, wife of the Focus founder, has chaired the task force since 1991. Photo by John D. Pierce.

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson
(right) is joined by congressional leaders including
now-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (left) for a 2009
observance of the National Day of Prayer on
Capitol Hill. The National Prayer Committee and
Task Force, founded in 1972, moved to the headquarters
of Focus on the Family in 1989. Shirley
Dobson, wife of the Focus founder, has chaired
the task force since 1991. Photo by John D. Pierce.

A fear surpassing all otherworldly horrors gripped the American nation in September 1949. The Soviet Union had just detonated its first atomic bomb, and suddenly planet Earth was imperiled with the prospect of annihilation.

In Los Angeles, Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham held his first large, multi-denominational crusade mere weeks after the Soviet atomic test. The crusade was the first carried by newspapers throughout America.

Throwing history to the wind, Graham gave voice to a mythological narrative, declaring that “Western culture and its fruits had its foundations in the Bible, the Word of God, and in the revivals of the 17th and 18th centuries.”

In reality, Western culture began in ancient Greece. Within modern Western culture, America’s founding documents were shaped by Enlightenment principles rather than religious revivals.

Bearing witness to the falseness of Graham’s claims, colonial Baptists — demanding religious liberty for all and church-state separation — played a pivotal role in shaping the formation of America as a secular nation.

Graham continued: “Communism, on the other hand, has decided against God, against Christ, against the Bible, and against all religion. Communism is not only an economic interpretation of life; communism is a religion that is inspired, directed and motivated by the devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.”

With these words Graham pronounced godless communism as the enemy of Christian America.

An ardent ally of the anti-communist crusader Wisconsin U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Graham in 1951 charged that some 1,100 “social-sounding organizations … are Communist or Communist-oriented in this country. They control the minds of a great segment of the people.”

When McCarthy insisted that the U.S. Constitution be suspended in order to root out alleged communist sympathizers, Graham took to his Sunday Hour of Decision broadcast in support of the senator. And when the Senate ultimately condemned the witch-hunting McCarthy for denigrating the First Amendment, Graham called the Senate action disgraceful.

In the midst of the anti-communist, constitutional crisis, Billy Graham in early 1952 led a charge to scrub from history the nation’s secular roots by having Congress declare America a Christian nation. He began with what to some may have seemed an innocent-enough vision, pronouncing at a Washington rally:

“What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer. What a thrill would sweep this country. What renewed hope and courage would grip the Americans at this hour of peril.”

Graham and other advocates falsely claimed that America’s founders had prayed during the Constitutional Convention, that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that presidential proclamations of national days of prayer were common during the nation’s pre-Civil War years.

Fearful of godless communism, legislators quickly pushed history aside and embraced Graham’s mythological narrative. On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman, a Baptist, signed a bill proclaiming an annual National Day of Prayer.

Public Law 82-324 read: “Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President shall set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year, other than Sunday, 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.”

The resolution echoed a number of statements from an earlier would-be nation: the Confederate States of America.

Confederate officials often designated official national days of prayer, proclaiming God an unequivocal ally of a nation fighting a godless enemy (the abolitionist North), while ignoring the evils of white supremacy, black subjugation and racial terrorism embedded in law, culture, society and religious institutions.

Often with the blessing of white Christians, racial apartheid and terrorism yet remained in much of 1950s America. Further abetting the historical analogy, many of the nation’s leaders of the 1950s cast the Civil Rights Movement as communist, reminiscent of slave owners masking their own evilness by dismissing African slaves as dumb, inhuman brutes.

The first National Day of Prayer proclamation took place on June 17, 1952. Although supporters of the legislation pointed to an 1863 proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, the two statements were quite different.

On March 30, 1863, Lincoln signed a one-time act “Appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.” Lamenting that America had forgotten God due to many years of slave-labor-financed “peace and prosperity,” Lincoln asked Americans “to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness” and “restoration of our now divided and suffering country.”

Rather than criticizing the excesses of national prosperity, confessing national sins and asking for forgiveness, Truman in 1952 embraced prosperity as a sign of Christian faithfulness, affirming God’s “constant watchfulness over us in every hour of national prosperity and national peril” and imploring “divine support” for the “security” to “steadfastly” pursue the triumphant course of the godly American empire.

Having emasculated history, communist-fearing U.S. legislators quickly set about tearing into the “wall of separation” between church and state as envisioned by early Baptists and enacted by the nation’s founders.

In 1954 Congress and President Eisenhower rejected the secular nature of the 1892 Pledge of Allegiance, written by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, by adding the words “under God” to the pledge.

The following year Congress and Eisenhower added the words “In God We Trust” to currency, and in 1956 established the phrase as the national motto.

During this time some legislators attempted to add an amendment to the Constitution declaring America a Christian nation. A proposed Constitutional amendment read in part, “This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.” Congress never acted upon the amendment.

The proliferation of white, Protestant civil religious legislation in the 1950s opened a sustained campaign against church-state separation that yet continues.

In 1972 white Protestant evangelical leaders established the National Prayer Committee and Task Force to promote the National Day of Prayer and the mythological narrative of America’s Christian founding. Congress in 1988 established a particular day for the National Day of Prayer: the first Thursday in May.

In 1989 the Task Force’s offices moved to Focus on the Family’s headquarters. Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus’ founder, James Dobson, became chair of the organization.

With Dobson’s prodding, President George W. Bush formally celebrated the annual event in the White House. The theocratic-leaning, evangelical Christian organization penned many annual proclamations read verbatim by President Bush, governors and other public officials.

Since 1952 the threat of communism has faded, replaced now by evangelical fear and loathing of Islam. In addition, many evangelicals remain opposed to equal rights for all Americans.

The nation’s capitol and many states today formally observe annual national days of prayer, while by some accounts an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 simultaneous events take place, including prayer breakfasts, public school flag rallies and local church events.

A U.S. District Court ruled in 2010 that the 1952 federal legislation enabling a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. The ruling noted that any group of citizens may voluntarily pray on any given day, but that federal declarations creating official days of prayer are constitutionally invalid. Nonetheless, the federal legislation remains in place.

Although President Barack Obama revised the annual proclamation to high-light diverse faiths and champion equal religious liberty for all, the National Day of Prayer remains primarily a rallying point for evangelicals.

Countless prayers implore God to ensure the election of politicians who will grant more privileges to evangelical Christians, while discriminating against the LGBT community, Muslims, immigrants and persons of no faith.

Many knowledgeable Christians, however, will pray on May 5 not because of an official government proclamation or from a Christian nationalist agenda, but rather from commitment to a gospel of inclusiveness and equality that supersedes human fears, religious dogma and the misguided politics of privilege.

Such a non-sectarian agenda honors America’s historical ideals and points the way to a better future. NFJ

By Bruce Gourley