Three cheers for US district judge Barbara Crabb, who on April 15 ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. And hurray for the plaintiffs over at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the scrappy Wisconsin-based group that really, really believes in separation of church and state (full disclosure: I'm on the honorary board). And what, you may ask, is the National Day of Prayer? Like "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" on our dollar bills, the NDOP may sound like it goes back to the days of wigs and three-cornered hats; but it's actually a product of 1950s anticommunism, back when "communism" was usually modified by "godless." Billy Graham pushed for it as a way to promote "the Lord Jesus Christ"; Senator Absalom Robertson (father of Reverend Pat) introduced it in the Senate, citing "the corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based"; and in 1952 President Truman signed Public Law 82-324, which directs the president to "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 [sic], in groups, and as individuals." Always a Christian thing, for decades the NDOP has been firmly in the grip of Focus on the Family. The NDOP Task Force, chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of FOTF founder James Dobson, organizes 30,000-40,000 events, culminating in the National Observance, in Washington. How Christian is it? In 2005 the Hindu American Foundation sought to join in and was rebuffed.
You'd think libertarians and tea partyers, who claim to oppose overweening government power, would adore Judge Crabb. Don't tread on me with your federal prayer mandate! But somehow, the government using its massive powers to promote prayer just doesn't grab them like the terrible injustice of someone other than themselves getting a government benefit. Sarah Palin was quick to weigh in with some typically tangled remarks: "Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers," she told a gathering of Christian women. "Hearing any leader declare that America isn't a Christian nation.... It's mind-boggling to see some of our nation's actions recently, but politics truly is a topic for another day."
What part of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" does the Christian right not understand? Judge Crabb's ruling is an "assault on religious freedom," says Shirley Dobson, who is also upset that the Pentagon, which has collaborated with the NDOP Task Force, "melted like butter" when faced with criticism from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and disinvited from its services Franklin Graham, son of Billy, who has made a specialty of calling Islam "evil" and "offensive," and telling Muslims that Christ died for their sins. "We at the National Day of Prayer Task Force ask the American people to defend the right to pray in the Pentagon," she writes on the Task Force website. In the topsy-turvy world of the Christian right, any restrictions on their collective sectarian power is a denial of individual rights. To reject a bigoted preacher is to deny "the right to pray." To end government-endorsed prayer is to ban all prayer. You might as well say that if we don't have a national bedtime--lights out at midnight, everyone!--the government is forcing us all to stay up forever. But not to worry: Franklin Graham will speak at the NDOP observance on Capitol Hill; President Obama is appealing Judge Crabb's decision; and, having issued an NDOP proclamation that mentioned God only once, he visited Billy Graham at home in North Carolina for a personal prayer session. I'm not too down on Obama for that--maybe that's what a politician has to do in this country--but it's all very far from Christ's own advice in Matthew 6:6:
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
Or as Thomas Jefferson put it: "Say nothing of my religion. It is known to myself and my God alone."
Speaking of the First Amendment, far be it from me to suggest that right-wing Christians are the only ones who don't seem to get it. On its website an American group called Revolution Muslim warned South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker that they risk ending up murdered like Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh for an episode that mocks the ban on images of Muhammad by showing him wearing a bear costume. It would be easy to dismiss this marginal group as the Muslim equivalent of, say, the Westboro "God hates Fags" church, except that Islamist fanatics have killed or tried to kill quite a few people for words or art they found blasphemous. It's shocking that Comedy Central caved in and censored the episode. Just as it was shocking when Yale University Press deleted the illustrations from Jytte Klausen's study of the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, The Cartoons That Shook the World. And when Random House dropped The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones's novel about Muhammad's wife Aisha.
I'm not equating Muslim fanatics with right-wing Christians, except those who bomb and set fire to abortion clinics and kill providers (and whose violence has had much the same chilling effect on the medical community as Muslim violence has had on culture and communication). But there is a common thread. National prayers, violent threats to supposed blasphemers--what part of the First Amendment do our modern true believers not understand?
Katha Pollitt's writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Her new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House. Her previous books include Learning to Drive: and Other Life Stories (Random House), a collection of personal essays.