If one tries hard enough and is clever enough, one can find a federal judge to rule on just about anything.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics based in Madison, Wis., filed a lawsuit asking Judge Barbara Crabb to order the government to cease from its annual National Day of Prayer proclamation. Last week, Judge Crabb ruled in the group's favor.
Congress established the day of prayer in 1952 and reaffirmed it in 1988. It occurs on the first Thursday of May.
Presidents have exhorted the nation to pray since George Washington. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation at the request of Congress for "a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer." On the evening of D-Day, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt led a prayer on the radio, asking all Americans to join him to petition God for the success of Allied troops. Following the assassination of President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson asked the nation to pray. When he assumed the presidency following Richard Nixon's resignation, Gerald Ford asked Americans to "confirm me as your president with your prayers." Did all of these---and other---prayer-requesting presidents engage in an unconstitutional act?
Atheists and agnostics have sought to erase "In God We Trust" from our money and eliminate the chaplain offices in the House and Senate. So far they have been unsuccessful, but give them time. As American secularists challenge our declining religious sense they can expect greater success. Are these court rulings the result of our moral decline, or its cause?
Politically, presidential prayer proclamations are no more significant than those for National Pickle Week. While Judge Crabb suspended enforcement of the ruling until all appeals are exhausted, and President Obama says he plans to issue a prayer proclamation this year, Republicans and conservatives might make an issue of Crabb's ruling as they denounce "godless liberals" and seek votes, presumably from the "godly."
The larger question is: What difference does a national day of prayer make? Does every American pray on that day? If so, to which God? There are many faiths in America, including non-theistic ones. Does a presidential proclamation aim to ask such people to pray to those gods? And if it does, then the entire exercise is meaningless. Sending letters to the same person at different addresses would mean that most aren't delivered.
Each faith has a different view of God and prays in a different way. The Jewish God is one whose initial covenant with the Jewish people remains in place. The Christian God sees that old covenant as having been replaced by a new covenant in Jesus Christ, who they believe is God's son. The Islamic God, Allah, believes Jesus was a great prophet but not God's son and that Ishmael, not Isaac, is the child of Abraham whose line (the Muslims) God chose to bless.
Theologically this matters. Politically it shouldn't. It is of no concern to me if this president, or any president, issues prayer proclamations. I can pray, or not, without government encouragement.
Does it matter to God? Only if our prayers result in changed behavior. Should God be expected to bless a nation that tolerates, even promotes, so much evil?
Perhaps instead of a proclamation for a day of prayer, the president should consider reverting to Lincoln and the part of his proclamation that concerned "humiliation," repentance, and a plea for forgiveness. According to Scripture, that is a prayer God always hears.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.