Today is May 6, 2010.
As the first Thursday in May, it also happens to be the National Day of Prayer.
Following the lead of Presidents Adams, Lincoln, and others, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill into law that required every president to declare a day of his choosing as National Prayer Day. In 1982, President Reagan made that day the first Thursday in May for him and all subsequent presidents.
All morning while driving the boys to school and back I listened to what seemed like an endless stream of pro- and anti- National Day of Prayer commentary. Frankly, I can understand the opinions expressed on both sides. Our National Day of Prayer poses quite a conflict between my religious sensibilities and my liberal mindset.
As a rabbi it should be obvious that I pray. I pray all the time. During services that I lead or help lead, I find it completely necessary to seek out prayerful moments, such as during silent meditation or when the cantor is singing. I pray when I exercise, in the car, and when I change my kids’ diapers (“Please, God—let it not be messy!”) I pray out loud and to myself, in groups and alone, at mandated and random times. Sometimes I use liturgy, sometimes I make things up as I go. Because of the myriad of moments of prayerfulness that I seek out, I can appreciate the need for a National Day of Prayer. I find it comforting to know that when I lift my eyes and call out to what I call “God,” I am not the only one who believes. Maybe I am crazy to believe in a deity whose existence defies all logic, but I’m in a company of some 95% of the country whose beliefs are similar.
As a liberal, however, I am acutely aware of the perils of the other 5% and our requirement as a nation to stand up for them, too. No matter how many religions a generic day of prayer touches, even if every synagogue, church, and mosque were to log in 100% participation, we would leave out some of our country who feel uncomfortable with prayer. This is unacceptable to me. No matter how many times I defend my beliefs to my non-believing brother-in-law, I would not want to insult him by requiring he participate in prayer at the same level as we do. On the other hand, we do pressure him into joining us when we recite Hamotzi—grace before meals.
Still, there is a difference between family pressure and federal law.
Our constitution, in the very first amendment, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” This is a slippery slope when arguing the establishment of a day of prayer. When I think about the 5% or more who either do not believe in God or are uncomfortable expressing said belief, the National Day of Prayer makes me cringe. Maybe it’s just the language. If we called it a day of meditation or reflection, it could hardly be construed as offensive to those who do not meditate or reflect. But the word “pray” raises the hackles of our brothers and sisters who choose not to partake in it. These same people are not bothered that it is currently Jewish History Month even though they are not Jewish, but for some reason prayer is bothersome.
Being a person of faith allows me to comfortably believe in God as I imagine God, and that faith gives me great comfort—no matter what other believe or do not believe. Therefore, I hesitate to support a law that asks people to pray. I do not want to participate in a government sponsored program that excludes some of our citizens.
The solution remains a mystery to me, and perhaps on May 5, 2011 I will have an answer.
For now, I will just have to pray on it.