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What is the National Day of Prayer?

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The National Day of Prayer is a day of religious observance in the United States of America in which people are called upon to pray for their country. The first official day of prayer in the U.S. was in 1775, when the Continental Congress called for the public to fast and pray for the leadership of the Colonies. After that time, Presidents periodically called the nation to pray during times of war or other hardships. In 1952, Conrad Hilton (founder of Hilton Hotels) and Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas, encouraged by Billy Graham, initiated a bill calling for the President to designate one day a year as a National Day of Prayer. In 1952, President Harry Truman signed a joint resolution into law; the original wording reads as follows:

Public Law 82-324: Joint Resolution; National Day of Prayer

To provide for setting aside an appropriate day as a National Day of Prayer

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President shall set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year, other than a Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer, on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.
Approved April 17, 1952.

A group of evangelical Christians formed the National Prayer Committee, which later formed the National Day of Prayer Task Force, in 1979. One of their purposes was to encourage Congress to set a specific date for the event. In 1988, Congress chose the first Thursday of each May as the National Day of Prayer, and the bill was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

The law states that the President must issue a proclamation calling all people to pray, but it does not stipulate the President’s involvement beyond that. Some Presidents host prayer events at the White House while others do not. The proclamations vary from President George H. W. Bush’s direct appeal to the Bible and the God of the Bible to President Barack Obama’s vague acknowledgements of the inspiring role prayer takes in the various faiths practiced in the U.S.

The National Day of Prayer is controversial, to some people. In 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the President, his press secretary, the chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and the governor of Wisconsin. The FFRF claimed that the phrasing “turn to God in prayer, at churches” in the 1952 law violated the First Amendment. Although the FFRF dropped the governor and the task force from the suit, a U.S. district judge found the law unconstitutional and urged President Obama to forgo the annual mandate. The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals threw out the suit, ruling that no one suffered any injury merely because the federal government set aside a day for people to pray if they wanted to.

As early as 2003, the American Humanist Association has called for a “National Day of Reason.” They also believe the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment. Although local and state governments have observed the National Day of Reason, a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2015 apparently failed. A second resolution was filed in 2017. The reasons given for a National Day of Reason have mostly to do with limiting the influence of conservative Christian views on government policy, school curriculum, scientific research, and pro-life efforts.

Is the National Day of Prayer biblical? Absolutely. It is biblical for Christians to gather to pray for the wisdom, safety, and guidance of our leaders; to offer thanksgiving for our national blessings; and to seek forgiveness for our national sins. The ecumenical nature of the National Day of Prayer is essential in a republic that values freedom of religion. No one should be coerced to pray in a way that is at odds with his or her faith. The National Day of Prayer Task Force should be free to coordinate events for Christians who wish to participate.

Should a Christian attend a National Day of Prayer event? Personal discretion and a case-by-case evaluation are necessary, especially if the event is ecumenical. If Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu prayers are offered side by side, then Christians should consider whether their attendance will give countenance to the belief that all religions are equal. Christians must weigh their support of the community against the impact ecumenism will have on their testimony of faith in Christ alone.

We should be thankful that the United States has a National Day of Prayer and that the God of the Bible is so strongly represented. There will likely come a time when this will not be the case. Until then, we should feel free to publicly pray for healing, forgiveness, and guidance for our nation and its leaders. Our influence as Christians in the public sphere is quickly waning, and we should take advantage while we can.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022