By Carol and Philip Zaleski
religion teachers, authors
Prayer is everywhere: on the battlefield, in the birthing room, on the deathbed, around the dinner table. We pray when we wake up, heart racing, in the dead of night. We pray when facing that final exam, that fateful X-ray. Prayer plays handmaiden to our most selfish desires – Please, God, let me win the lottery! – and our most generous ones – May there be peace on earth! May this dear child live a long life! Even fox-holed atheists famously pray. All this is to say that prayer is an essential part of life, an act that almost everyone finds indispensable to a life filled with meaning. Prayer is a vital part of what makes us human.
It is also a vital part of what makes us Americans. The Declaration of Independence, the Statue of Liberty, Thanksgiving, the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, every United States dollar, all breathe the presence of prayer in our common life. No wonder, then, that national calls to prayer are a familiar occurrence, from President John Adams declaring May 9, 1798 “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer” and “fervent thanksgiving to the bestower of every good gift,” to the 1952 act of Congress, signed by Harry Truman, that gave the National Day of Prayer its present form.
We see nothing in the Constitution or First Amendment to justify anxiety about this nonsectarian tradition. The Constitution guarantees that there will be no state meddling with the free exercise of religion, no religious test for public office, and no establishment of any particular religion, but it does not silence religious expression in the public square. The Supreme Court, in many recent decisions, has confirmed what the vast majority of Americans believe: that prayer belongs in public life. In times of national crisis from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, our greatest leaders have harnessed the power of public prayer to marshal moral courage and inspire unity; in times of relative peace it would be shortsighted to forget this.
It is the glory of the American experiment that religion flourishes here even as it dwindles in countries saddled with a national church. For 364 days each year, prayer goes on in homes, hearts, and houses of worship without attracting much national attention, and this is as it should be. But surely it is not too much to ask that there should be one day on the calendar in which we remember that prayer does not occur in a vacuum, one day in which we remember that the Constitution has hallowed the free exercise of religion without favoritism or interference by the State.
But what kind of day should the National Day of Prayer be? Consider for a moment the daily tapestry of American prayer. It’s dawn in a Michigan suburb, and a Muslim muezzin calls out the adhan with the reminder that “prayer is better than sleep”; next door, a Christian is making her morning devotions. It’s Friday evening in a New York apartment building, and a Jewish mother and daughter are lighting the Shabbat candles, while a Buddhist sangha on the third floor chants the nembutsu and an AA meeting in the church basement across the street recites the Serenity Prayer. What a joyous superfluity of spiritual expression! What a cultural treasure house! This is prayer in America, and its reality ought to be reflected on a National Day in which, as the current statute (36 U.S.C. §119) expansively describes it, “the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”
Unfortunately, certain sectarian groups have attempted to make the National Day of Prayer their private province, and some religious leaders have turned it into a soapbox from which to defame Islam. This is clearly wrong and must be firmly rejected. We ought to pray, on our National Day of Prayer, that such un-prayerful abuses of public prayer will be corrected.
But there is another danger, perhaps more seductive. Religion in the public square often takes the form of “ceremonial deism” — a homogenized form of prayer that ostensibly offends no one but cannot provide real spiritual food nor encompass the lived experience of religion in our culture. Americans pray in particular words to a God they know by a particular name, not in generic words to a general-issue God. It is this particularity and diversity that the National Day of Prayer exists to celebrate and to serve.
Carol and Philip Zaleski are the co-authors of “Prayer: A History” (Houghton Mifflin). Carol is a professor of religion at Smith College. Philip is a research associate in religion at Smith; he writes full time and edits the Best Spiritual Writing series for Viking Penguin.