Abraham Lincoln knew it and many of us have lived it. Prayer works, and a nation that punts on prayer has disarmed itself for no good reason.
The sensible religious majority of this nation should do all it can to avoid offending their secular neighbor, but good manners must give way to good policy. Prayer is good policy.
Some may object that prayer cannot possibly manipulate the mind of the Almighty. He is not, after all, a Chicago ward politician who can be swayed by bribes, cheap housing, or political favors. In an interconnected cosmos, we don't always know what is best. If the motion of a butterfly wing can start a typhoon across the world, then it would be folly to assume we know the implications of any single action.
We pray not for God's sake, but for our own. God will do what is best for us, because He loves us, but it is best for us to pray. People who give their cares to God are psychologically healthier than those who think they have to do it themselves. There is a reason that AA encourages its members to rely on a higher power.
The citizen that turns to the Almighty learns three important truths.
First, he learns that the government is not the source of his rights or his hope. What the government does not give-rights and hope-it cannot take away. It does a republic good to acknowledge every once in a while that Caesar is not Lord. Only a slave has hope built on nothing more than government help and its largess.
Second, as many discover in their personal lives, prayer and meditation are good for our minds. We gain personal peace when we cast our cares on God. How much more needful is the civic peace that comes when we cast our cares on the Almighty!
It might be that any given politician is a hypocrite mouthing pious platitudes of false humility, but it does our princes good to be forced to bow their heads. Good forbid we ever have leaders who bow to foreign potentates, but will not kneel to God. American revolutionaries proclaimed: "No King, but King Jesus!" and signed the Constitution in the "year of Our Lord." Most Americans favored adding "under God" to our pledge, because in the 1950's we wanted to make clear that, when they conflict, we would obey God rather than men.
When our leaders urge prayer, it forces them to acknowledge the limits of their power.
Finally, a wise people knows it does not deserve God's blessing. God will judge and no nation can face that prospect with clean hands. Foolish men earlier in our Civil War thought of themselves as "righteous," but as the war went longer and became more costly, the Union saw that it was paying the price for our original civic sin of slavery.
As a proclamation for national prayer signed by Abraham Lincoln put it at the time:
It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
The nation that cannot repent, because it believes it deserves the blessings that come to it has become proud to the point of folly. America is a great and good place in some ways, but we are not without serious sin. We don't want what we deserve and should pray for God's mercy. This very attitude makes it less likely that our on-going national problems will destroy us.
There is perhaps an easy error to make in looking at prayer. In the past, under most of our Presidents, we have asked for God's mercy and, on the whole, the United States has muddled through problems that could easily have destroyed it. As a result, we might grow complacent and assume that we need not worry about repentance. Why worry? Yet that assumes that we can cease to pray and that no harm will come from it.
This may be true, but most of us are not willing to risk it. The man who will not bow the knee may be right not to do so, but most Americans see little evidence that this is true. What was good enough for Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, unless obviously outdated or wrong, is good enough for us.
Secularists may be offended by national prayer and in a free society they are entitled to their eccentric views. Nobody should be forced to pray, but the rest of us need not be bound by their limitations. There are religious groups that forbid blood transfusions, but the state still pays for them. The fact that some have irreligious objections to prayer need not limit free people from praying corporately.
There is no doubt that praying is good for individuals and this suggest that it is good for a people. Pacifists must accept that their views are rejected by most Americans and their tax money will be spent on the military. Those opposed to modern medicine have to accept that tax money will be used to pay for it. Creationists have to accept that the opinions of the scientific majority will be promoted in tax funded schools and museums. In the same way, those with an irrational aversion to the praying majority should tolerate a national day of prayer.
Most of us don't want to live in a nation arrogant enough to think we can do without it.
*This article published on April 29, 2010.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.