Purpose of national prayer day debated

Staff WriterMay 7, 2009 

Today at noon, an estimated 500 people will gather at the state Capitol in Raleigh for the annual National Day of Prayer. As in years past, they'll pray for the government and its elected officials, for the school system, for the military and for families -- all in Jesus' name.

The ritual is a favorite among Christian evangelicals, and for the past eight years former President George Bush marked it in the East Room of the White House with prominent evangelicals at his side.

This year, things will be different. President Barack Obama will not hold a White House ceremony; his press secretary says he will issue a proclamation.

To many evangelicals, that's a snub.

"I do believe they want to silence us and keep us from praying," said Linda Stone, of Greensboro, the North Carolina coordinator for National Day of Prayer.

Critics contend that evangelicals have hijacked the event at the expense of other people of faith. Others argue the government has no business endorsing or promoting a day of prayer.

"It would be more in keeping with the spirit of prayer if we kept it in the private realm and not have government leading the effort," said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, based in Washington, an advocacy organization sponsored by moderate and liberal Baptist denominations. Walker has called the event "misguided and unnecessary."

Last month, the Interfaith Alliance and Jews on First, an organization devoted to religious liberty, wrote a letter to Obama asking for an "inclusive Day of Prayer." They urged him to open the observance to clergy and believers of all religions.

The National Day of Prayer dates back to 1952. In 1988 President Ronald Reagan set it the first Thursday in May.

Beginning in 2001, Bush began holding a ceremony in the White House with James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and his wife, Shirley, as guests of honor. Shirley Dobson has been chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force since 1991.

The Dobsons did not support Obama. During the presidential campaign, James Dobson accused Obama of "deliberately distorting" the Bible.

Organizers of the Day of Prayer do not deny that the focus of their efforts is exclusively Christian.

"This is not a multifaith gathering," said Don Rayno, who organizes the Raleigh prayer event. "I don't see that changing."

Rayno said that if it were to become more inclusive, it would cease to attract the people who now participate.

Stone, the state coordinator, said defenders of the day of prayer are numerous. She said nearly every county in North Carolina holds at least one observance.

"The enemy -- which is Satan -- wants to silence our prayers," Stone said. "But by law we have a right to do so, and we will continue."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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