SKEPTIC: Some Christians are hopping mad at President Obama because he declined to observe this year's National Day of Prayer with an event at the White House. He issued the proclamation urging Americans to pray (which is required by law), but skipped the annual butt-kissing of religious right leaders that Bush had engaged in by inviting them to the White House each year. By doing so, Obama was doing exactly the same thing as every other president before Bush, going back to Truman, who established the first observance of the day in 1952.
But of course, there are plenty of folks, myself included, who believe that the government has no business telling anyone when to pray, how to pray, or to pray at all. The separation of church and state is a concept that is central to our democracy. Add to that the fact that the observance has been hijacked by the religous right (Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, is the chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force), and what you've got is really The National Day of Christian Prayer. If you happen to believe in a different religion, I guess you're on your own.
PREACHER: Historically, America has been strongly influenced by the Christian religion. So, it is not surprising that such events as a national day of prayer have a strong Christian flavor. The historical concept of the separation of church and state, or freedom of religion (not to be confused with the concept of freedom from religion which is impossible to guarantee) was that the government wouldn't institute a national religion, but would not pass laws against religious activities either. I would suggest that those who aren't of the Christian persuasion stop complaining and institute parallel observances showing their appreciation and solidarity with the nation.
SKEPTIC: You're right that the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a state religion, and the government is required to permit the free exercise of religion. However, the courts have generally held that the government cannot favor one religion over another, and also cannot favor religion over irreligion (or vice versa). This is why public prayers in government schools are not allowed, and is also why local governments get in trouble when they erect things like a nativity scene or The 10 Commandments on government property.
But to get back to the matter at hand - what is the real purpose of The National Day of Prayer? Do Christians really need a special day set aside to pray? Isn't it just an elaborate commercial for Christianity?
PREACHER: Christians see the National Day of Prayer as a way to encourage people to follow the advice in the Bible that says: If My people will humble themselves and pray and turn from their wicked ways, then God will hear from heaven and hear their prayers and heal their land. We really do believe in a God that listens to humble prayers, and that concerted prayer does make a difference. Then there is a large group of people who see a day of prayer as just a cultural event. Those are the people that unbelievers should try to reach. If instead of complaining and going to court about religious events and objects on public places (which causes a backlash), you were creative at producing what we missionaries call dynamic cultural equivalents you might be able to win over the majority of the population.
SKEPTIC: A "dynamic cultural equivalent..." That's an interesting idea. So we nonbelievers should come up with something along the same lines as the National Day of Prayer that we can celebrate. Hmm...Okay, how about this? I think the U.S. government should declare the second Sunday in June each year as a "National Day of Darwin." On this day, the government will issue a proclamation imploring Americans to meditate on Charles Darwin and thank him for giving us a rational understanding of how the world works. Teachers can have special classes for students to make sure they understand why Darwin is so revered. People can send special Happy Darwin Day cards to each other and maybe even give each other presents. Cake would be optional.