National Day of Prayer sign in Washington DC
Biblical quotes displayed in Washington, DC for the 2006 National Day of Prayer.
(photo: Street Protest TV/Flickr)

The latest culture war over the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer reminds me of Krista’s conversation with Steve Waldman in our program “Liberating the Founders.” In this pre-Obama election interview, when asked what he wanted the next president to understand about our historical context for the balancing act between church and state, Waldman replied:

“I would love it if the next president understood that someone’s view on separation of church and state does not necessarily describe their personal faith. What I mean by that is that we’ve come to think that if you support separation of church and state, you must be secular. Or that if you oppose separation of church and state, that means you’re more religious. And from the founders’ perspective, that was a very odd notion. That would be viewed as a complete non sequitur.”

Later on in the interview, Waldman concludes:

“… So I end up with a position that I guess is a little bit idiosyncratic, which is that a lot of this stuff ought to be allowed, but that we shouldn’t be fighting about it so much and that we should be really placing less importance on whether or not religion is invoked in the public square.”

Ms. Tippett: And what should we be placing importance on?

Mr. Waldman: We should be placing importance on living a good life according to the dictates of our faith. The founders would say that’s the most important determinant of religious success — is whether or not religion makes you a good person. And for the most part, despite the fact that we have all these debates over the war on Christmas and there’s lawsuits and there’s, you know, fights on TV. You know, for most Americans, the question of the strength of their faith is not actually determined by Bill O’Reilly or the ACLU. It’s determined by whether they treat their neighbors well and whether their prayers are heart felt and whether they lead a good life and follow the dictates of their faith.

What do you think? What weight do you give this issue in current American culture and politics?

Share Your Reflection



We tend to forget how tightly religious affiliation was tied to the right to participate in society in the colonies. The elimination of a religious requirement for citizenship was what was originally behind the separation of church and state. The distortion that it has become has created a tension that I think is behind the extreme polarization that at times seems to threaten the entire fabric of current American culture and politics.

I think that anyone who does not see the Nationa Day of Prayer as state sponsored religion in general and state sponsored Christianity in particular is being obtuse or deceitful.

the interesting thing for me is that the effectiveness of prayer does not seem to require a belief in god, or even the existence of god.

If prayer is effective without a God, who/what acts to make one's prayer become factual,
or answered in some way? Also, how do you measure the effectiveness of prayer?

I've had a hard time discussing the importance of the separation of church and state with other Christians. I understand that keeping the two separate protects my right to worship as I see fit -- protects it from other Christians who would have their interpretation of faith, which I may or may not agree with, passed into law. What they fail to grasp is that freedom of religion necessarily includes a freedom FROM religion. I would love to hear a level headed, well reasoned argument supporting the concept of freedom from religion as inherent in the Bill of Rights.

Remember when we celebrated World Day of Prayer, rather than National Day of Prayer? Why have we become so parochial? Wouldn't we be better advised to celebrate inclusivity/diversity?