Last Thursday was the National Day of Prayer. Established by Congress in 1988 as an interfaith "civic religion" holiday, in recent years it's been co-opted by a non-governmental agency run by the Christian right (the event's planning commission is headed by the wife of Focus on the Family's James Dobson), and has become a forum for evangelical proselytizing. As Pastor Rick Danner said at the outset, the ceremony is to "remind leaders that this country is based on Christian prayer, and remind them to return to their roots."
"I always get butterflies before I speak," began Vivian Phillips, Mayor Schell's director of communications, "but thank you Jesus, I have no butterflies today, because I am among a body of believers." Quite obviously, city government has not only endorsed this event, but appears to have abandoned any notion that church and state should be separate. "I know people say you shouldn't mix politics and religion," she continued, "but I'm proud to be a child of God, and I believe I was put in the mayor's office for a purpose."
Phillips was followed on the podium by King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who prayed for the military in Kosovo, and County Councilmember Rob McKenna, who read from the Bible. Then came a couple of numbers by a public school choir from T.T. Minor Elementary.
Although the P-I billed the event as a way to come to grips with recent tragedies at home and abroad, the only spiritual answers offered recommended "a return to God... through his son Jesus Christ." Kosovo and Littleton were discussed, but not as much as how "precious to God" babies in the womb are, and how abstinence and the Bible should be preached in schools. "We say we'll be open-minded, and we'll be humanist, and we see what's happening now," declared Carrie Abbott, executive director of SHARE, a group that goes into schools preaching abstinence. "We need to take back the schools for Father Christ. I want to see Bible study on every campus."
Congress ratified the National Day of Prayer with the understanding that it would include all religions. Yet Jews (or Buddhists, for that matter) were not invited to the Seattle ceremony. Alan Ronkin, Director of Communications for the Jewish Federation of Seattle, calls the exclusion "disturbing," adding, "Jews are certainly in favor of prayer, although not necessarily government-sponsored public prayer."
Reverend Loren Nelson, who helped organized the event, says other groups weren't invited because the National Day of Prayer is meant "to honor our spiritual heritage in this nation, which is Judeo-Christian.... The founding fathers were mostly Christian. They started Bible societies, and advocated teaching the Bible in the public schools. That's always been our history and [was] the original purpose of the colonies."
Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says National Day of Prayer materials are rife with historical inaccuracies and flat-out lies. He finds it particularly alarming that such misinformation is distributed on a government-sponsored holiday. "In some of the materials they distribute there's a passage from a Supreme Court decision about church and state that's entirely made up. There's a quote about James Madison and the Ten Commandments that's been debunked thousands of times."
Reverend Nelson sighs. "Acceptance of all kinds of cultures and religions have their place," he says, "but if you understand God as a real person, you see that he has an influence on our country. We see, as the Bible says, if we reject the Lord, nations will turn to hell."
National Day of Prayer attendees were given "Adopt-A-Leader" prayer calendars, which list a different elected official to pray for each day in May. Did our public leaders feel the power of God on their designated days?
State Attorney General Christine Gregoire (May 6):
"She had a pretty average day," said press coordinator Gary Larson. "She had a meeting in Tacoma, and took care of normal office business. No miracles happened."
Brian Sonntag (May 5):
"I actually had a really good day. I went to present some awards in Yakima for public employees."
State Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn (May 8):
"Are they aware that she is Jewish," asked a Senn assistant, "and that the day they are going to pray for her is the Sabbath?"