National day of prayer draws fire from Christians
An annual address by US President George W. Bush marking the National Day of Prayer has drawn fire from several religious groups, including the Fuller Theological Seminary.
Bush's speech was broadcast on Thursday night over US Christian television and radio networks as part of an evangelical concert, transmitting his message to a pivotal political constituency around the country.
The president's participation in the broadcast drew criticism from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which suggested that the non-profit evangelical organization that sponsors the concert and related events was improperly advertising for Bush's re-election. Some religious figures also accused the organizers of the broadcast and the White House of using prayer for political purposes.
The president made his remarks before a small gathering of religious figures in the East Room of the White House. "God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know He is on the side of justice. And it is the deepest strength of America that from the hour of our founding, we have chosen justice as our goal," Bush said.
The White House ceremony offered some religious diversity - with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy offering prayers. Bush even acknowledged the nation's religious pluralism in his speech. "Americans of every faith and every tradition turn daily to God in reverence and humility," Bush said.
However the audience was largely made up of evangelical Christian leaders. Among them were Southern Baptist Convention president Jack Graham, SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler.
The role of faith in politics has already provoked rows between the candidates for the presidency. Democrat candidate John Kerry employed the bible to criticise leaders who have "faith but no deeds," prompting President Bush's spokesman to accuse Kerry of exploiting Scripture for political ends. Bush's faith also came under the spotlight at the time of the invasion of Iraq.
Yesterday's event included readings or statements by Rev. Barry Black, a Seventh-day Adventist minister who is chaplain of the Senate; Rev. Daniel Coughlin, a Catholic priest who is chaplain of the House; and Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
On the Web site of the evangelical National Day of Prayer, the group encourages special prayers for certain "centers of power" in America, including praying that educational institutions return to teaching "Judeo-Christian values" and warning that young children's classes are teaching "homosexual propaganda.
Shirley Dobson - wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson - introduced the White House ceremony marking the Day of Prayer. She praised Bush for his religious faith and leadership. "We deeply appreciate your commitment to prayer, your belief in God, and your principled leadership of this nation," she told the president, to extended applause from the audience.
Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House, said the prayers did not reflect the president's views, and noted that the audience assembled for the event in the White House included people of many faiths, including Muslims and Hindus.
Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, a major evangelical school, argued that such prayers "call people together in a position of self-righteousness, to talk about people who they think are more sinful than they are, and that is a dangerous thing."
Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said; "These events are carefully managed to give the general public the impression that the government has endorsed the Religious Right's religious and political viewpoint." He continued; "It's exactly the opposite of what our nation's founders intended."
Lynn pointed to the fact that, since 1988, most of the thousands of National Day of Prayer events around the country have been coordinated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, which says its events are conducted "in accordance with" the group's "Judeo-Christian beliefs." Since 1991, Shirley Dobson has chaired the task force. The group requires its event coordinators to subscribe to a Christian confession of faith that, among other things, affirms biblical inerrancy.
The prayer day has taken place since President Harry Truman and Congress declared the first one in 1952. While under previous presidents the White House event often was held in private, Bush has focused more attention on it than his predecessors.