Thursday is National Day of Prayer, as mandated by Congress. What should President Obama do? Should he follow tradition and sign a ceremonial proclamation? Should he follow President George W. Bush’s practice of hosting a formal White House event? Should he ignore it completely?
President Obama has brought a distinctly post-modern sensibility to the Presidency. This sensibility is reflected in his decision to recognize a National Day of Prayer, without hosting a related event at the White House. It’s splitting the difference, and a wise move, even though it might reverberate in unexpected ways.
To be sure, Obama’s detractors will see this decision as yet another sign that Obama is finally revealing his true self. Some will see this as confirmation that he’s a secularist in the European mode. Others, belonging to the lunatic fringe of presidential critics, will speculate that Obama will retire to his White House office and say his daily prayers as a Muslim. There also might be some who will say Obama is not going far enough since the proclamation of a National Day of Prayer self-evidently violates the separation between Church and state. But the vehemence of these criticisms only affirms the discernment that doubtless shaped the President’s decision.
Religion is part of the fabric of American society. Indeed, it is the very strength of American religious commitment that has shaped many of the values that America has sought to embody. Even though the founders of the American republic were understandably suspicious of religious sectarianism, it has often been those sectarian commitments that have renewed this country in times of crisis and challenge. In one sense, the proclamation of a National Day of Prayer does nothing more than simply acknowledge the importance of religiously based participation in American life. If proclaimed with sufficient recognition of America’s religious diversity, the National Day of Prayer can also become an important framework for renewing America’s commitment to pluralism.
But the President hosting and participating in a White House event has implications of a different sort than those associated with simply signing a proclamation. The White House is the seat of American presidential power. Whether in fact or simply in perception, combining religion with political power is dangerous. Over the last eight years, we have witnessed how presumptuous and theologically naïve understandings of divine providence have shaped the public presentation of American policy. In an age where we are seeing an explosion of religiously sanctioned violence, it is important that an American president recognize that there should be clear boundaries between religious commitment and the exercise of governmental authority. Of course, in one sense, maintaining such a boundary is artificial since religious beliefs cannot be easily compartmentalized. But attempting to set a distinction is important in order to find a manageable balance between affirming religion’s importance and guarding against its excesses.
Barack Obama is a post-modern president for a post-modern age. We live in a world of nexuses and nodes, of virtual experience and contextually shifting allegiances. Catholic and Evangelical theologians and scholars are rightly concerned that pragmatism and relativism are the dominant themes now, instead of commitment and truth. But that is the reason why we need religious scholars and theologians to speak to such issues without relying upon associations with the power of the nation state. The President’s proclamation of a National Day of Prayer, without participating in a White House function, reflects the tensions and inconsistencies of our age. But it is better to recognize these tensions and inconsistencies than it is to repress them through the exercise of power.