The National Day of Prayer (NDP) came and went again this past Thursday.
Our friend Beth was talking about it online, and as I read her great post, I began wondering how this day came to be seen as such a big screaming deal by fundagelicals. I don’t think it was that big a deal back when I was a Christian; I don’t remember attending any rallies or anything related to it, much less demanding that my elected representatives pretend to care about it. But the more Christianity loses its power in American culture, the more important these shows of religiosity are going to become to its adherents.
As I dug into the history of the National Day of Prayer, I remembered that old saying about how religion’s a lot like sausage-making in that you don’t ever want to view too closely the making of either one. This “holiday” was concocted in a perfect storm of Christian entitlement, persecution fantasizing, control-lust, naked opportunism, and desperation. There is absolutely nothing noble, loving, or (if I may be permitted to use the term) Christlike about how the National Day of Prayer came about, nor about how it is practiced today.
The more I learned about it, in fact, the less impressed I was, and the more disturbed.
An Inauspicious Beginning.
In 1952, the Congress of the United States of America spent its citizens’ tax dollars on the authorization of a “National Day of Prayer” for a secular country with the concept of “freedom of religion” woven into its very fabric. It’d be downright baffling if one didn’t know that this government-sponsored holy day was a very deliberate response to a whole bunch of things going on in American culture at the time, and a reflection of contemporary Christians’ fears, prejudices, and hatreds.
Specifically, most of the NDP’s origins can be traced to a very dark time in American history called the Red Scare.
The Red Scare was a serious panic over Communism in America. After World War II, our government and citizens alike were simply terrified by the huge, faceless, monolithic-looking specter of Communism. People breathlessly talked about how any second now, if Americans were lax or overly-complacent, Communism would soon overtake our shores and enslave our
women citizens. Their fear was stoked and fueled by people who understood very well that when people are sufficiently terrorized, they tend not to think clearly or do what’s in their own best interests.
Propelled by fear, Americans began doing some really goofy and counterproductive things to try to fight this perceived danger.
President Harry S. Truman signed into power the “Loyalty Order” in 1947, which demanded that federal employees be tested to ensure their loyalty to the government. This program reflected America’s growing hysteria about Communism. It was very much a tool of abuse and repression with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, nor even transparency. The program directors published what they called the “Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations,” or AGLOSO, which was basically just a big long list of groups who’d been identified (for whatever reason) as disloyal to American interests. Anybody belonging to one of those groups was considered disloyal or even treacherous and dangerous.
The government had been using this sort of list for years on the down-low, but now made it public, unleashing a genie that would never again return to its bottle.
A big part of the firestorm of attention the list got was that Americans had already gotten used to something like it. For years they’d been hearing about and thrilling to the proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was part of the House of Representatives in Congress. The HUAC had similarly-considerable powers of intimidation and suppression as the Loyalty Order’s officers. But after 1947, the HUAC suddenly became even more powerful. Their interrogations masquerading as “hearings” became the stuff of legend.
The people the committee called* often hadn’t actually done anything wrong at all. They were being harassed and persecuted simply for holding the wrong beliefs or saying the wrong things to the wrong people. They still had rights, of course, but exercising them often caused more problems for them than not exercising them.
If a victim refused to cooperate, then they still got fired by their employers and blacklisted by their professions. If they tried to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, that amounted to a confession of guilt in the minds of both the committee and the public. And it’d all happen in a media circus of publicity.
As one might imagine, Americans rapidly came to view those on the list as out-and-out traitors. And because the government publicized the list and hearings without a single bit of information about how the HUAC had decided who was under suspicion and why, and because the committee didn’t care if victims were innocent until proven guilty, the list and hearings both amounted to a witch hunt: a deliberate attempt to stoke Americans’ terror of “godless Communism” and make people see Communism as a much bigger threat than it actually was.
The National Archives identifies the people responsible for that fearmongering as “a powerful coalition of American conservatives, notably the FBI, significant elements in the business community, the Catholic Church, and, especially, an increasingly politically desperate Republican Party.”
And probably nobody within the Republican Party was more politically canny and desperate than a newbie senator from Wisconsin who’d won his election largely by talking up his military service.
One of the most opportunistic politicians at the time, Senator Joseph McCarthy, ran roughshod over America for quite a while. He was the Donald Trump of his day, taking advantage of Americans’ fears and pandering to their very worst impulses. He wasn’t censured by his colleagues in government or denounced by important journalists until 1954, which gave him plenty of time to do his damage.
Senator McCarthy knew as well as his colleagues did that linking Communism to atheism, along with associating American patriotism and nationalism with Christianity, was simply good business. In the speech he gave before Congress on February 9, 1950, he made that link explicit:
The great difference between our western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world is not political, gentlemen, it is moral. . . Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. . . Can there be anyone who fails to realize that the communist world has said, “The time is now,” that this is the time for the showdown between the democratic Christian world and the communist atheistic world?
Even after Senator McCarthy was denounced, though, we still couldn’t quite let go of our fear of Communism. In 1956, we added “under God” to our country’s Pledge of Allegiance and money. We were just too accustomed to seeing Communism as the great enemy that threatened everything about America that we held dear: its religiosity, its sentimentality, its traditions.
That’s the charged climate in which the National Day of Prayer came about as a concept.
And one could argue that all this heated rhetoric worked, too. Certainly it didn’t take long for the evangelical leaders of the time to notice how wonderfully effective the efforts of that “coalition of American conservatives” were.
That history professor’s paper I just linked you to identifies the anti-Communism crusade as a big part of the reason why American church membership rose from 49% of Americans in 1940 to 65% by 1970–and it further identifies evangelicals as the Christians who were largely responsible for that increase. Prominent evangelical Billy Graham wrote eloquent, impassioned appeals and gave fiery sermons about Communism being “Satan’s religion” and how his particular take on Christianity was the most powerful weapon there was against Communism’s incursion into America.
Meanwhile, Mr. Graham’s like-minded peers twisted Bible verses like the 9th Commandment in Exodus 20:16 (the one about bearing false witness) to justify interrogating Americans about their loyalty to their secular government. In the same way, 2 Corinthians’ exhortation about false prophets became a dire warning about evil, liberal Communist clergymen pretending to be nice, proper Christian Americans.
In the middle of all of that mess, Billy Graham spearheaded the idea of a National Day of Prayer. And nobody in his tribe wondered how that idea could possibly go wrong.
Us vs. Them.
“U.S. religious leaders used the Bible to convince Americans that their freedom, liberty, and citizenship were inextricably tied to Christian faith,” writes that history professor, Thomas Aiello, and that association only became more obvious as time marched on.
Republicans particularly have seized upon this uniquely nationalistic, shrill, fear-based, authoritarian, tribal, pearl-clutching variant of Christianity to propel themselves into power and maintain control over the one voting bloc that they can kinda-sorta depend on. Over the years, thanks to their ceaseless and tireless fearmongering, Christian leaders have instilled in their followers a deep distrust of dissent and disbelief–one that causes suffering to ex-Christians and atheists and which unnecessarily divides countless families and couples even today.
In fundagelicals’ fantasizing, those who reject Christians’ claims and refuse their control are rejecting America itself and, paradoxically, becoming the enemy of freedom, liberty, and justice. In the worldview proudly held, taught, and trumpeted by fundagelical Christians, one that is increasingly polarized into a dualistic, black-or-white, and us-or-them mentality, they see themselves as good, pure, folksy, freedom-loving, and American, while anybody who rejects their demands and control are, by contrast, seen as evil, corrupted, overly-intellectual, liberty-hating, and suspiciously anti-American. There is homeland and there is foreign, and that which appeals and pertains to home is what is moral and acceptable while that which pertains to the other is the opposite.
This kind of thinking falsely paints those outside the tribe as the Other, the Enemy, as evildoers who must be opposed at all costs. Whatever that enemy wants must obviously be opposed as well, because it’s going to be just as evil as the enemies themselves are.
The National Day of Prayer–like the Red Scare before it–was designed from the ground up to keep Christians in power over non-Christians. Moreover, the exact Christians who were supposed to benefit from this day were fundagelicals. The Freedom From Religion Foundation explains:
[The National Day of Prayer’s] purpose, as explained by [Billy] Graham, was to help bring “the Lord Jesus Christ” to the nation (“What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country kneeling before almighty God in prayer.”) U.S. Sen. Absalom Robertson, father of Rev. Pat Robertson, introduced the bill in the Senate, saying it was a measure against “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.”
Indeed, when the National Day of Prayer was fixed in date in 1988, it was fundagelicals spearheading that effort as well: Pat Boone, Senator Jesse Helms, Senator Strom Thurmond, and Vonette Bright (a co-founder of the Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical Christian college group). They asked for a fixed date so that Christians could have, in several of their words, “advance notice” so they could do better “long-range planning” around the date. (Is it just me or does that whole thing sound sinister?) And the FFRF points out that the “National Day of Prayer Task Force,” which we’ll be talking about next, is actually housed in the headquarters of the infamous evangelical anti-gay group Focus on the Family.
If one bunks down with dogs, one gets up with fleas. No offense to dogs. Dogs are awesome. Power-hungry fundagelicals, less so.
I hope I’ve sufficiently demonstrated that the National Day of Prayer is entirely an invention of right-wing leaders to further their own ambitions, maintain their own power structures, and try to reclaim the power they think they deserve to hold. I also see now (and hope y’all do too) exactly why fundagelicals seem so weirdly obsessed with Communism–their entire culture was shaped by the Red Scare in ways that go way past their grandstanding around the National Day of Prayer.
Nice Country You Got Here. Shame if Something Were to, uh, Happen to It.
If anybody dares to speak against their overreach, then fundagelical Christians will cry persecution, because having their demands rebuffed and grabby hands slapped away from other people’s rights is, in their own eyes if nobody else’s, totally literally like the persecution that their religious predecessors supposedly faced years ago (but probably didn’t)–and actually do currently face elsewhere in the world. Fundagelicals’ fervent persecution fantasizing is starting to reach its zenith at this point, much of it centered around their conceptualization of Americans, particularly evangelical Americans like themselves, as Jews version 2.0, of America as the new Promised Land, and of Bible characters like Jesus and Moses as Founding Fathers of America.
In that fantasy, the National Day of Prayer is a sort of spiritual warfare, one that only demonic forces would ever oppose–making it a litmus test of allegiance, faithfulness, and obedience to the current regime.
One might even say that it is, in its way, a Loyalty Order of its own meant to fight its own version of a Red Scare and keep its sheep nice and quiet. It is a show of force for Christians, an opportunity for them to show off their loyalty and signal their superiority to other people. It is a permission slip that they write for themselves, as well, to hassle and intimidate anybody who doesn’t share their opinions.
And it’s one of their few remaining opportunities to preen and swan around in public as if they’d actually won their culture war rather than catastrophically losing it.
In their disturbing Dominionist fantasy, the Christians who really push dominance attempts like the NDP see themselves as underdog freedom fighters trying to rescue their beloved country, in the name of their god of course, from the evildoers who wish to seize it and do terrible things to it–and those evildoers would already have won if these brave
pants-shitters PRAYER WARRIORS FOR JESUS hadn’t already stepped into the fray. And oh sure, if other religious people want to pray along with them, then that’s fine; it certainly helps them lie better about their motivations and purposes. But let’s not forget who owns this circus and these monkeys.
It’s hard to imagine a situation better exemplified by the phrase “tyranny of the majority” than the one before us. The people smugly glorying in this day they pushed into being are like school bullies who, instead of being stopped from harassing their schoolmates, have instead been chosen to be hall monitors for the week. And our country’s government handed them the sash to do it.
Loving Christians may be well-excused from wanting to participate in this travesty and mockery of their own values. Indeed, some Christians do indeed “opt out” of what amounts to a state-sponsored show of religiosity for its own ends–one that has nothing whatsoever to do with the stuff that Jesus supposedly told Christians to do.
While some of these outliers are trying to rescue the idea of the National Day of Prayer from fundagelicals by making it as inclusive as its founders claim they intended it to be, I don’t think that there is anything worthwhile to rescue here. The idea of it was rotten at the core and corrupted from the outset. It was always meant to force Christian privilege onto others. It was always intended to be a show of tribal force and dominance aimed at those who oppose that tribe’s aggressive, chest-thumping, Dominionist, expansionist hegemony.
And it performs those functions perfectly.
Not surprisingly, the Christians who are loudest about celebrating this day reveal the truth of the matter in how they practice and celebrate their government-sponsored show of piety. We’re going to talk about that in the second half of this discussion next.
* Richard Nixon was one of those committee members, incidentally.