Praying for America
Bill Long 9/18/06
The Mysteries of Presidential Prayer
The question I would like to raise in this essay is why the current President of the United States, a religious man, in a time where American public religiousness is very visible, does not offer prayers on network broadcasts for the American people or for our "cause." The issue is intriguing because, as I have discovered, another President at another time (FDR in 1944), when Americans were far less religiously outspoken, actually prayed for the nation. Let's begin with that prayer, offered on the evening of D-Day (June 6, 1944), and then pose the question of how America has changed religiously in the past 62 years.
The D-Day Prayer
FDR spoke/prayed the following prayer in the context of a six-minute speech announcing the "success" of the D-Day invasion earlier in the day.
"And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest -- until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home -- fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them -- help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too -- strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keeness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment -- let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace -- a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.
This prayer, called "Lincolnesque" by one of my more historically-oriented adult education students, has unmistakable Christian touches, even though it isn't offered "in Jesus' name." In addition, it centers on the themes of sacrifice, victory, the justness of our cause, and the certain losses that will come our way. My point to my class yesterday, however, was that no President today would be able to offer such a prayer for America even if America was sorely pressed. My class didn't really beleive me, I don't think; many of them would be happy to have a prayer offered for America by the President in a national crisis. Here are some reasons which lead me to this conclusion.
From One Religion to Many Religions
America has changed religiously since the time of FDR not in the fact of the diversity of our religions but in the perception of diversity. In the time of FDR America was morphing from being a "Protestant" nation to becoming a "Protestant/Catholic/Jew" nation. But the underlying continuity between the two concepts was apparent. We still were all children of the one God, whom Roosevelt calls "The Almighty." Jesus himself could not be invoked because one of the triad of groups didn't pray to him or in his name. This expression of religion is known as American Civil Religion, and had been around since the origin of the Republic. But since we were all really of one religion, even though it wasn't identified with any particular denomination, the President could serve as the high priest of this religion. His encouragement to invoke the deity, as well as prayers offered on the people's behalf, thus flowed from his role as high priest of this one religion.
But all this has changed. America is arguably more religious than it was 60 years ago, if you count the ways that religious faith is mentioned in the public sphere and in the ease that people speak now of their religious faith, but it is conscious of the fact of the diversity of religions in our midst. Indeed, one of the latest things we have become aware of is that not all religions in our midst worship a supreme being (such as Buddhism). Thus, I think that any prayer offered by a Chief Executive in our day would be greeted with derision and attack because of the perception that it can't really speak for every religious group or for the agnostics/atheists in our midst. Thus, the President can encourage others to pray, and can say that he prays for America, but we wouldn't permit him now to offer a prayer.
Well, that having been said, I think the Democrats would allow him to offer a prayer of confession!
Conclusion--From High Priest to Comforter
The central religious role we want our President to pray, however, is of comforter when a national tragedy strikes. We don't want to hear him praying; we don't want him expositing religious doctrine. But we do want him to be there with grieving families when planes crash, people die, and explosions occur. We want him to put hands on shoulders and see an occasional (but not frequent) tear in the eye. We want him, therefore, to play a pastoral role, but one that is seen in works rather than words. Such is the way that America has changed.
Will we ever again want a President to articulate a national vision tinged with religious rhetoric? I think so. I think the tradition of America's religious vocation and rootage is so strong that there still is a longing for a President to play the mystic chords of religious memory for the nation as a whole. But it will be done only if the President is able to include diversity in this reference. I think it is far too tall a task for this President and most other politicians that I have seen. But still there is the longing...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long