Yesterday was the National Day of Prayer. As usual, it contained a lot more controversy than it did prayers.
In April, a U.S. district court ruled that the federal law that designates a National Day of Prayer and requires an annual presidential proclamation violates the 1st Amendment's establishment clause, and is thus unconstitutional. The Obama administration changed the wording of the annual proclamation and is appealing that decision.
Then, Franklin Graham – the son of evangelist Billy Graham – became angry when he was uninvited from a National Day of Prayer event at the Pentagon, saying it was "a slap in the face of all Christians." Critics had complained about Graham's invitation because of references he has made to Islam as "evil" and inferior to Judaism and Christianity.
While these events are perhaps more high profile than usual, the fact is that the National Day of Prayer is controversial every year. And rightly so.
In theory, the day is secular, but the truth of the matter is that certain religious organizations have powerful connections in Washington that make the day sectarian. According to Time Magazine, for example, the Pentagon outsources the organization of its events to the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group headed by the wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Anyone who thinks that Protestantism doesn't receive the majority of attention of this alleged "secular" day is misguided.
While Obama's National Day of Prayer agenda was notably grounded in comparison to that of former President Bush, and it is likely he will ultimately win his appeal, the recent controversy makes one wonder why we need to designate a National Day of Prayer at all. Who is supposed to be benefiting? Those who choose to pray are presumably doing it more than once a year. And those who choose not too, don't need to be subject to this yearly ordeal.