National Prayer Day has people talking about its origins and purpose

Published: Thursday, May 2 2013 8:20 p.m. MDT

Marissa Mast prays during a breakfast gathering for the 62nd National Day of Prayer at the Calvary Chapel of Salt Lake in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 2, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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Thousands of people across the country Thursday observed National Prayer Day, some attending events in their communities and others pontificating online about the origin of the event and its purpose.

Beginning the discussion was President Barack Obama, who wrote in a proclamation issued Wednesday that "prayer brings communities together and can be a wellspring of strength and support. ... Regardless of religion or creed, Americans reflect on the sacredness of life and express their sympathy for the wounded, offering comfort and holding up a light in an hour of darkness."

Also defending the national observance of prayers was Pastor Greg Laurie, honorary chairman of the task force for the National Day of Prayer.

"America needs prayer like never before," he wrote for Fox News. "In fact, I think the answers to our deepest needs as a nation are spiritual, not political. We need divine intervention, and if we don’t receive it, we are in for some very dark days indeed. The United States needs another spiritual awakening or, as it is often called, a revival."

The National Day of Prayer was instituted under President Harry Truman in 1952. During President Ronald Reagan's second term, Congress set the observance for the first Thursday in May, according to a brief history in the Christian Post on the role of prayer in America.

But not everyone likes the idea of government proclaiming a day to pray. In response, secularists established a National Day of Reason that was also observed Thursday.

"The National Day of Reason is a way for those of us without supernatural friends to emphasize what we believe is important for a healthy society: skepticism, reason, and a continued commitment to the separation of church and state," wrote Drew Miller in PolicyMic.

He argues that the National Day of Prayer is inherently divisive because it publicly excludes nonbelievers. "No wonder atheists are still the most distrusted minority in America," Miller said.

Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn says the country doesn't need either day, then closes her own petition: "My most fervent prayer is that people of differing faiths pray to their gods and not try to proselytize to the rest of the country, which has no place in the public square, especially with government sponsorship. I also pray that whatever we do, we do it reasonably."

But Mark Movsesian wrote in First Thoughts that public prayer's roots are too deep into American culture to remove.

"Public religious references of a nonsectarian character have long been a part of the American tradition, for better or worse, and there’s no stopping them now. The wisdom of our ancestors is in such things, as Dickens once observed in another context, and if we disturb them, the country’s done for. Purists, of the secular and orthodox variety, have to adjust."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

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