Since Truman, U.S. presidents have issued annual proclamations declaring a non-sectarian National Day of Prayer, and this year is no different. What has changed in recent years is the rise in influence of a sectarian group that has appointed itself the “official” organizer of the occasion. The National Day of Prayer Task Force, headed by James Dobson’s wife Shirley and based out of Focus on the Family offices in Colorado, admits that its purpose is “organizing and promoting prayer observances conforming to a Judeo-Christian system of values” – in particular, evangelical Christianity based on Biblical inerrancy and fighting the “cultural war” – but it acts like it’s a federal agency and the arbiter of the holiday itself.
This past week, prior to New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s signing of a state proclamation on the day of prayer, Dobson issued an attack on his radio program. Focus’s Citizenlink web site published this indignant article on Friday accusing Spitzer of purposefully “insult[ing] and offend[ing] millions” of “people of faith”:
We want to make you aware of a slap in the face the governor of New York has delivered to people of faith all across the country.
Gov. Eliot Spitzer – who just a few days ago promised to sign a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in his state, should one land on his desk – apparently has refused to sign a proclamation supporting Thursday’s observance of the National Day of Prayer. The governors of the other 49 states have already issued such proclamations, acknowledging the need for America to unite in prayer.
Won’t you take a minute or two – no matter what state you live in – to let Gov. Spitzer know what you think about his refusal to acknowledge the National Day of Prayer? Remind him that this country was founded as a Christian nation – and he will insult and offend millions if he continues down the path he is on.
Focus also asserted that “the governor of New York, which was the target of the vicious and unprovoked attacks on 9/11, does not believe the people of his state need divine guidance and protection.” After Spitzer signed the proclamation, Citizenlink replaced the article with a declaration of victory, asserting that Spitzer “changed his mind … after Dr. James Dobson alerted the nation through his Focus on the Family broadcast.”
However, the only evidence Focus has provided that Spitzer had decided not to issue a proclamation is that his office didn’t return phone calls from the National Day of Prayer Task Force. From Citizenlink:
Susan Castilla, the New York coordinator for NDP [sic], said she was put off time and time again by the governor’s staff.
“It seemed the National Day of Prayer was on the back burner,” she said. “We don’t get phone calls returned. You never hear back. This has kind of been a constant thing.”
Castilla is actually the state coordinator for the NDP Task Force, not for the federal observance itself. Apparently, the NDP Task Force expects state governors to follow its commands, having set a deadline:
Jean Truty, who works for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, said a letter requesting a proclamation was mailed to Spitzer in January. The letter asked for a response by April 1.
Notably, the proclamation that was issued today is dated April 25. Christine Anderson, press secretary for Spitzer, said delays can happen in paperwork. “He always intended to sign it,” she said.
Why is it so important to Focus on the Family that the NDP Task Force be presumed to be an “official” body? A clue might be found in the group’s prayer guide, which describes the media as “hostile to those who voice their belief in Christ” and schools as “promoting a radical social agenda” including “Condom distribution, and a refusal to acknowledge God.” By co-opting the observance, the NDP Task Force isn’t just promoting prayer – it’s promoting the talking points of the Religious Right.