Last night I participated in the Troy Interfaith Group's annual National Day of Prayer service. It was a grand affair -- filling the sanctuary and foyer of Troy's First Presbyterian Church. We had Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, Baha'is, and maybe more. We shared songs, readings and prayers. I read the Golden Rule as it is depicted in a variety of religious traditions, as young people light candles to lift up each of these statements. Afterward, we broke bread together. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event. Interestingly enough this observance came into being because one of the founding members of the group, a Hindu woman, was prevented from participating in an observance held on the grounds of City Hall. The City Council at the time supported the claims of those who declared this to be a Judeo-Christian event (to which, as I understand it, the local Rabbi said -- leave the Jews out of this). And so a movement was born, one that seeks to better represent the diversity that is present in our community.
I share this story as a segue into answering the title question. Do we need a National Day of Prayer? My initial answer is no. As a person of faith I don't need the President or Congress to tell me that I need to pray. My faith tells me to do just that. On the other hand, it might be appropriate for the government to set aside a day in which prayer might be of value to the nation. I think that's the sentiment of James Madison (author of the Constitution, by the way). Brad Hart provided this quote from a letter written by Madison to Edward Livingtone in 1822 in a post at American Creation.
There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive Proclamations of fasts & festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of injunction, or have lost sight of the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms. In this sense, I presume you reserve to the Govt. a right to appoint particular days for religious worship throughout the State, without any penal sanction enforcing the worship. (James Madison)
Note that Madison suggests that such a proclamation is appropriate if it is not an injunction and doesn't "lose sight of the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution." Now, you might say, did he intend to include Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus? I don't know what he had in mind. But my sense is that he would, if alive today, insist that all religious traditions be included in its purview. My sense is that President Obama's proclamation is in the spirit of Madison's recommendations.
Do we need a National Day of Prayer? I'm not sure I can answer that question. In fact, it's probably not a relevant question. Constitutionally, precedent and practice suggest that it's not illegal. But, if we take Madison as our guide, it would seem that the state shouldn't organize such affairs and that they shouldn't penalize for not participating. I'd take this a step further, in light of the statement about affirming the equality of all sects, it would seem appropriate that any service held on public grounds or with any hint of public sponsorship, should be interfaith and open to all who would come. If some would like to have a Christian's only event -- fine -- but don't seek government sponsorship. Have it in your churches. In reflecting on this event, my greatest concern is not that secularists will push the religious folk out of the public square, but that one group will seek to use its claims to either majority status as a reason for dominating the public square.
As for our TIG service, I think we've come to the point where we wouldn't want to go on to public property for the event. We've found our niche and it's working!