Will The National Day of Prayer Be Different This Year?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 21, 2009 — 4 Comments

For the last eight years, evangelical and conservative Christians have had unprecedented access to the president and the prestige of the White House. This included front-row seats at White House observances for the “National Day of Prayer” (held on the first Thursday of May every year). For years non-Christian groups, religious minorities, and liberal/moderate Christians have denounced the hijacking of this national call to prayer by the National Day of Prayer Task Force led by  Shirley Dobson (wife of Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson), a non-governmental group that enjoyed all-but-official backing from the Bush administration. But now there is a new president in office, and the Task Force is already planning for a big snub.

“Every year between 2001 and 2008, former President Bush’s calendar was cleared on the first Thursday in May to mark the National Day of Prayer in the White House East Room with prominent evangelicals. Now the Obama White House is facing questions of inside-the-Beltway etiquette: Should Obama maintain the open door to conservative critics like James and Shirley Dobson, and if so, should they accept? Or, will the White House have an official observance at all? With those questions unanswered less than three weeks before the annual observance, the National Day of Prayer Task Force headed by Shirley Dobson is moving ahead with other plans … In years past, Toon said, a White House liaison has contacted the ministry at least a month in advance to ask about their participation in the White House events that featured music, Scripture readings and remarks by the president and Shirley Dobson. She and her husband, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, were seated prominently in the front row next to the president and first lady … This year, Dobson’s task force has opted to hold its annual event on Capitol Hill in the morning — at the same time when its representatives are usually at the White House.”

Could this pre-planning for a snub be more pessimism from the Dobson camp? James Dobson did recently made the news for a downright gloomy exit speech concerning culture war failures. Or perhaps this is just canny positioning? After all, if they are throwing their own party, they can hardly said to be snubbed by Obama can they? But if the Dobsons are losing their front-row photo-op with the new president, what will the official White House day of prayer event be like? Will there even be an event or proclamation? NDP Task Force vice chairman Brian Toon points out that the big White House prayer photo-op was only instituted during the reign of George W. Bush, and that previous presidents were more subtle in their participation.

“Prior to the Bush years, task force leaders held more low-key events, including at Lafayette Park across the street during the Clinton administration. “There was no East Room event until George W.,” Toon said. While he recalled being at White House receptions with rabbis and imams, Toon said the Capitol Hill event has tended to be “very Christian.” If there is no White House event this year, it would be a disappointment, Toon said.”

Can we have a national call to prayer that doesn’t insinuate you need to be an evangelical Christian to be fully included? While I haven’t been fully happy with all of Obama’s religiously-oriented choices, he has made overtures to humanists, Buddhists, Hindus, and “nonbelievers” in past speeches. Maybe we’ll finally see a proclamation and observance from our new administration that doesn’t alienate and exclude non-Christians when a call to pray for the USA goes out. Perhaps this example will “trickle-down” to the state governers, who will no longer be cowed into issuing Dobson-approved NDPTF proclamations for a day and message supposedly meant for all Americans.

Jason Pitzl-Waters