Political Animal


May 02, 2013 5:21 PM Let’s Get Prayer Out of the Churches and Back in the Schools and Public Meetings Where It Belongs!

By Ed Kilgore

You might think that by stint of being a Christian believer and a Political Animal I’d be all charged up about this being the National Day of Prayer. Here’s why I’m not, as eloquently expressed by Sarah Posner at the Guardian:

Thursday is the National Day of Prayer, the annual spectacle of activists and elected officials, in Washington and around the country, gathering for unabashedly conservative Christian public worship. This year’s theme: “Pray for America”, because there is a need, organizers say, “for individuals, corporately and individually, to place their faith in the unfailing character of their Creator, who is sovereign over all governments, authorities, and men”.
Although the US Congress designated the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer, these organized prayer activities are staged by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a Christian, rightwing organization. Despite its lofty claims, the NDPTF represents neither all Americans nor all Christians. As just one example of its extreme positions, the group promotes a strain of Christianity that teaches marriage equality is satanic, as pro-LGBT groups have pointed out.

Now as it happens, I have an additional motive for disliking events like this: Religious belief has suffered enormously from state involvement over the millennia. You can make the argument (many have) that the worst thing that happened to the early Christian Church was its adoption by Constantine as a state religion (simply refusing to persecute Christians, or anyone else, would have been a far greater gift). And one of the greatest things about this country is that it allowed believers (and in theory, at least, unbelievers) to breathe freely, without the dubious support and the incessant interference of government (all of the obnoxious revisionist history coming from the likes of David Barton can’t make it otherwise!).

It’s deeply ironic that the faction of American Christians, conservative evangelicals, who have benefitted most from this freedom, and who used to (in my lifetime) champion it as fiercely as any ACLU lawyer, are now stealthily and not-so-stealthily working to make government and politicians agents for what they perceive to be God’s Will, which inevitably makes churches agents for politicians and the state.

What seems to have seduced them is the realization that the casual and near-universal Christian religiosity of this country has faded, requiring a hardier and more serious type of faith. While I never much minded the watery Christianity of civic life when I was a child—it was mainly a cultural totem like baseball or the “work ethic”—I also didn’t confuse it with serious faith. All those prayers in schools or at public events rarely reached the roof. So the Christian Right’s insistence that the “public square” is precisely where faith must be proclaimed lest we fall into barbarism never passed the laugh test with me. Moreover, the idea of a faith that cannot not survive mockery, or official neutrality, or the terrible insult of department store Xmas sales that don’t mention Jesus—would have come as a shock to those who actually suffered real persecution over the ages.

It’s unclear whether the National Day of Prayer is just a pallid revival of the watery Christianity of a bygone era, or, as Posner suspects, something a lot more menacing (I’m sure it’s the latter for many of its organizers, if not its participants). But let’s get one thing straight: this is not representative of the country generally, or of people of faith generally, or of Christians generally. It’s the project of a particular kind of Christian who for complicated and quite possibly sincere motives can’t seem to do without Constantine’s Sword. I pray they don’t succeed in their ambitions.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on May 02, 2013 5:47 PM:

    Well, thank GOD we have a National Day of Prayer - since we're forbidden by law from praying on any of the other days.
    We Christians have been persecuted for too long!

    Why is that that I suspect that before we elect an open Atheist, or even an admitted Agnotist, as President, we'll have a left-handed Lesbian Muslim.Hindu/Budhhist/Confucian woman, with heritages that go back to Africa, Central America, and Asia?

    By that, I mean that, while there's no "test of religion," there sure as hell seems to be a 'test FOR religion.'

    Wake me up when I can celebrate a "National Day of Reason."

  • Anonymous on May 02, 2013 6:26 PM:

    Just to set straight what a farce this "Christian" display is, a Palestinian radical had this to say "When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." Matt 6:5-6

    I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. Ghandi

  • weirdnoise on May 02, 2013 8:02 PM:

    I'm afraid that the Republican Party has steadily reinforced the Christian Right's hopes of future theocracy as part of the party's strategy for holding its electoral base. I think that in private many Republicans are wholly secular, but use well-practiced God-talk in public.

  • John on May 02, 2013 8:17 PM:

    Christianity was not adopted as a state religion by Constantine, although Constantine personally converted and sort of sponsored the Council of Nicaea under his auspices. But the pagan state religion of the Roman Empire continued to be the official state religion for another 50 years or so, until the reign of Theodosius the Great.

  • Anonymous on May 02, 2013 8:45 PM:

    Those old boys at Philadelphia knew what they were doing. For one thing, they knew history and how it plays out. Choosing a state religion from the various colonial churches would inevitably lead to persecution of the others by the select. A secular government, removed from religion, was the obvious and logical answer. But somehow this truth escapes today's First Amendment champions:

    America's vaunted freedom of religion is actually a freedom FROM religion. It wasn't created to protect religion from government; it was created to protect government from religion. The first civil society in the history of the world to do so.

    And I will give prayerful thanks this week to our founding fathers for that blessed legacy.

  • Anonymous on May 02, 2013 9:52 PM:

    Which is why I cringe at "Selah" after some of your political posts!

  • alwaysiamcaesar on May 03, 2013 7:23 AM:

    I also didn't remember Constantine making a state religion , or the state sponsored passing of Olympian and Manichean disciplines .

  • Anonymous on May 03, 2013 8:10 AM:

    You mean "You might think that by dint," not stint!

  • Pat on May 03, 2013 11:29 AM:

    What I dislike about the whole display comes straight from a well-loved parable from Jesus himself. In the verses where he taught the Lord's Prayer, he explained that those who parade their faith are not beloved of God. In contrast, prayers made in secret reach his ears. All I can think of when I read about the evangelicals today is "sackcloth and ashes."

  • Altoid on May 03, 2013 1:24 PM:

    Micah put it nicely too-- something about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with one's God. Too bad that's weak tea for the Day of Prayer types with their mighty Assault Rifles of Faith.

  • TomParmenter on May 03, 2013 3:08 PM:

    I just can't imagine the Nazarenes putting up with Presbyterian rule or vice versa, not to mention the impossibility of agreement among the 400 kinds of Baptists, my two favorites being the Footwash Baptists and the 40-gallon Baptists.