Obama, the Orthodox Union and the National Day of Prayer

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

President Obama is getting pounded by the religious right for not holding a “National Day of Prayer” event at the White House tomorrow, but he is getting support from a key Orthodox group.

In his Institute for Public Affairs Blog, OU public policy director Nathan Diament reviews the history of the event, which began in 1952 and which “has been marked in various ways by all presidents since then.”

Diament goes on to say this:

While some will no doubt criticize the Obama White House for this decision, we think that is inappropriate – and, moreover, not in keeping with the purpose of the observance which is to unify Americans through a national moment of reflection and aspiration to higher purposes.

In February, President Obama participated in the National Prayer Breakfast. There, the new President said: “this is my prayer….that if we can talk to one another openly and honestly, and perhaps allow God’s grace to enter that space between us, then perhaps old rifts will start to mend and new partnerships will begin to emerge. In a world that grows smaller by the day, perhaps we can begin to crowd out the destructive forces of zealotry and make room for the healing power of understanding.”

We should each find our own prayers this Thursday, as the United States provides us the freedom to do. But for those seeking a president’s prayer to reflect upon, we suggest those remarks from February are just as timely in the spring warmth of May.

Makes sense, right?

But the annual event,  promoted by the conservative Focus on the Family ministry and a National Day of Prayer Task Force directed by the ministry founder’s wife, has become a major flash point in the nation’s culture wars, with evangelical groups pressing for ever-more-sectarian official ceremonies and church-state groups responding with alarm.

It became an official White House function during the President George W. Bush years, and although groups like the OU were represented critics said they became increasingly evangelical in character.

The Web site/activist group JewsOnFirst, working with the Interfaith Alliance, conducted an online petition drive arguing that the prayer event had been “hijacked” by the religious right and asking for an “inclusive” day of prayer.

The groups also urged public officials to “refrain from proclaiming or endorsing the National Day of Prayer in ways that enhance the Task Force’s exclusive control of the day and its efforts to create the appearance of government-sponsored religious ceremonies.”  (Read about their drive here)

The White House, at least, seems to be listening; tomorrow there will be a presidential proclamation but no White House prayer session.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.