Today is National Day of Prayer. At schools, courthouses, and other establishments across the country, people will be gathering to pray for communities, cities, and our nation. I am still unsure how I feel about days of prayer like this. In one sense, community leaders gathering for prayer is a very beautiful and biblical picture of the role of government. It is a recognition of where their authority comes from and to whom their responsibility falls. But in another sense, it has the potential to create many pitfalls, which characterize much of evangelicalism in the South.
However, in the Bible Belt a National Day of Prayer offers a tonic laced with moralistic therapeutic deism. A National Day of Prayer is often presented as evidence that our governmental leaders truly trust God and lead our communities based on God’s will. It fuels the myth that the United States is a theocracy of sorts. Contrary to popular belief, the United States is not the New Israel. The whole ordeal just seems a bit put on, disingenuous, and politically motivated. In the Bible Belt, the National Day of Prayer is code talk for “pray Obama out of office day.”
Christians participating in this event may see it as an example of religious freedom. Events such as this are always seen as the extent of religious freedom. It’s like keeping the Ten Commandments in school, or having prayer in school. When these things are tampered with, Christians cry for religious freedom. But as we are proud of the National Day of Prayer and whine over a framed list of the Decalogue, the rug is being swept from under our feet. Our society is trying to tell us that we are free to worship privately, but as soon as our faith actually impacts the way we live, think, vote, lead, work, and conduct business, we have overstepped the bounds of our religious freedom.
Am I in support of a National Day of Prayer? For what it’s worth, I am in full support of a National Day of Prayer, because of what it shows. If ever asked to participate in such an event, I would comply, so long as it would not cause me to sin. Regardless of the genuineness of those leading such events, the collective recognition of dependence on the divine in civil matters is a good thing. But let’s not fool ourselves. While such a day is one example of religious freedom, it is on the fray.
Religious freedom as granted us by the Constitution extends much further. May we not limit ourselves by finding too much pride in this day. America will not be transformed by a single day of prayer. It will be transformed by God-centered, Jesus-loving people living out their faith on a daily basis.
I am praying for all pastors who are involved in speaking and praying at various locations. Show that all governmental authority comes from above (John 19:11). Communicate the one thing all Democrats, Republicans, and otherwise need–the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ, the one true perfect King. Do this by praying. Pray for our country. Pray for religious liberty. Pray for our leaders, not against them. Pray for justice. What is said will be important, but the picture of bowed heads relinquishing self-dependence will be worth the risk of all pitfalls–I hope.
But let’s be clear. Gathering for prayer on a special day is not some mystical way to awaken Jesus. By virtue of his death and resurrection, Jesus has been crowned rightful King of the universe. He isn’t waiting on our prayers to rule in authority. His sovereignty is dependent on nothing, but his own will. Want a National Day of Prayer? Fine. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking Jesus is only in control on this day. He reigns whether you like it or not. All the time. Forever more.
Mathew Gilbert is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church East Bernstadt. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.