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The National Day of Prayer

David Domke is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington. Kevin Coe is a doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. They are authors of the The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America. To learn more about the book check out their handy website here, to read more posts by them click here.  In the post below they consider the effect of our National Day of Prayer.

Today is the National Day of Prayer. In modern American politics, that means one thing: the God strategy will be in full effect.

Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1981, politicians—especially U.S. presidents—have gone to unprecedented lengths to signal their support for those citizens who rely heavily on religious cues to make voting decisions. The National Day of Prayer is a perfect day to send such signals.

Here’s what to expect. President Bush will issue a proclamation extolling the virtue of prayer. Most people will pay little attention. They’ll go on about their lives, praying or not as they see fit.

A small but politically important cohort, however, will see Bush’s proclamation as a crucial show of support for their religious beliefs. And these are the people to whom Bush is speaking.

The targeted audience is organized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force. This organization was first headed by Vonette Bright, wife of Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, and has been chaired since 1991 by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. The Brights and the Dobsons are iconic figures among religious conservatives, and their connection to the National Day of Prayer has given the event a decidedly conservative and Christian character.

Consider that those who sign up to volunteer for the National Day of Prayer Task Force have to affirm this statement of faith: “I believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of The Living God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation and have an ongoing relationship with God.” Volunteers must also pledge that the activities they organize “will be conducted solely by Christians,” though “those with differing beliefs are welcome to attend.”

In a more inclusive form, a National Day of Prayer wouldn’t be an altogether disagreeable gesture. Many Americans are prayerful people, and presidents have been consistently proclaiming national days of prayer since the 1950s.

But like most aspects of presidents’ public religiosity these days, the National Day of Prayer has become a kind of political weapon. It hasn’t always been this way.

Presidents since Reagan have been far more eager than their predecessors to issue proclamations celebrating religion. Leaving aside the two standard National Day of Prayer proclamations that presidents have long issued each May, the growth in religiously oriented proclamations before and since Reagan is astounding. In fact, our examination of the more than 6,000 proclamations from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush revealed a more than five-fold increase in the per-term average since 1981.

And this is only one part of a broader trend. Compared to their modern-era predecessors, presidents since Reagan have invoked God and faith much more often, merged God and country with more regularity and greater certitude, and substantially increased their trips to speak to religious audiences (with conservative groups like the National Association of Evangelicals getting a heavy proportion of these visits). They’ve even upped their references to Christ during Christmastime.

In all cases, the goal has been the same: signal support for people of faith. If goal itself is innocuous, the outcome has been anything but. Presidential religiosity has become narrow and partisan—and people have noticed.

In response to the National Day of Prayer Task Force’s hostility to non-Christian volunteers, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State issued a statement saying the event had been “largely hijacked by the Religious Right and is being used as an opportunity to promote a far-right religious-political agenda.” Meanwhile, Jews on First, another religious watchdog group, is promoting an alternative: the “Inclusive National Day of Prayer.”

An inclusive National Day of Prayer is a start. But what the nation ultimately needs is a presidency that offers a more inclusive brand of public religiosity.

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