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Praying in the USA

Where the National Day of Prayer comes from--and where it's going.

12:00 AM, May 6, 2004 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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THE CATHOLIC CHURCH may be putting the heat on John Kerry, but media coverage of President Bush's religious beliefs has also intensified in the last week. Last Thursday, PBS aired its Frontline documentary "The Jesus Factor," a revealing examination of the roots of George W. Bush's religious beliefs and how they have shaped his presidency. And this past Monday, a panel of writers and think-tank fellows gathered at the National Press Club to discuss the impact of a presidential candidate's faith and the media's treatment of the subject. "I think it's interesting that [Bush] regards his overt faith as both a potential advantage and a potential minefield as he seeks reelection," said panel member David Aikman, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Trinity Forum and former foreign correspondent for Time magazine. Aikman is also the author of the recently published book A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush.

In the midst of an election-year battle between Bush, who has been called our most openly religious president, and Kerry, the first Roman Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy, the discussion at the Press Club was a timely one. And while the panelists disagreed on just how much a candidate's faith matters to voters, they all agreed that it does indeed matter--and will affect how Americans across the political spectrum vote in November.

Election Day aside, there is no better day than today--the 53rd annual National Day of Prayer--for Americans of all religious backgrounds to come together and think about their own faith, to celebrate their freedom and what President Bush calls "America's great tradition of prayer." In his National Day of Prayer proclamation, President Bush asks that we pray especially for "the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces who are serving around the world to defend the cause of liberty."

According to the NDP website, there is record of government leaders calling for days of intercession as early as 1774. Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of prayer in 1863, and Franklin Roosevelt invited the country to pray with him on June 6, 1944, D-Day. An act of Congress officially established an annual day of prayer in 1952, and in 1988, Ronald Reagan amended the law, designating the first Thursday of each May as the National Day of Prayer. And of course, there was September 14, 2001, when President George W. Bush proclaimed a national day of prayer and remembrance in honor of those who lost their lives on 9/11.

Today, individuals in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands will participate in organized worship and observances. In Washington, D.C., a national observance will be open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Cannon House Office Building. Government officials and members of the military will join retired marine colonel and Fox News commentator Oliver North, who was named the 2004 National Day of Prayer Honorary Chairman, as he provides the keynote address. In addition to other events, Christians for Israel will gather on the Capitol steps to pray for America and Israel throughout the day, and a concert of prayer will be broadcast nationally from the Jefferson Memorial at 8:00 p.m.

The theme of this year's NDP is "Let Freedom Ring," which is based on the Old Testament Book of Leviticus: "proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants." NDP vice chairman Jim Weidmann says on the NDP website that the vision of the theme is "to encourage believers to take advantage of their Constitutional rights to gather, worship and pray."

But taking advantage of those rights is becoming an increasingly difficult thing to do, as Shaunti Feldhahn pointed out in a May 5 editorial for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "many Americans feel the need to cry out to someone greater than themselves, both individually and corporately---but even that impulse reveals a sobering irony. For as we gather across the country Thursday to celebrate freedom of worship and to pray for our country, our religious liberties are under their greatest attack."

Indeed, the Supreme Court is deciding if we can continue to pledge ourselves "one nation under God," and just last month, it upheld a lower court decision to ban mealtime prayers at the Virginia Military Institute. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is now calling on the U.S. Naval Academy to review its own practice of leading cadets in prayer. "Nonsectarian prayers, moments of silence and devotional thoughts are offered before noontime meals at the academy," Lt. Cmdr. Rod Gibbons told the Annapolis newspaper The Capital. "Midshipmen may participate or not, as they desire. We plan to continue that practice."