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Reacquainting ourselves with prayer (Scripps Howard News Service) May 3, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

I admit the National Day of Prayer is not a day I always honor but, as they say, everything is different after Sept. 11. Not only did I pray on Thursday but, since I take stock of thankfulness on Thanksgiving and civil rights on Martin Luther King Day, I took time to reflect on the place of prayer and faith in American life. And I decided they really are different, in essentially good and important ways, after Sept. 11.

One clear difference is that, as a result of the tragic events of Sept. 11, God and prayer have reentered the national vocabulary. In ways that were not entirely acceptable a year ago, it is now OK to pray and to talk about prayer in America. Although George W. Bush is hardly the first president to conclude a speech with “God bless America,” he is the first president of the modern era to openly and consistently encourage Americans to pray. More than that, the president has shown that he is personally familiar with the language and practice of prayer.

As it does in our personal lives, tragedy has brought us to our knees in American public life. We do not turn most readily to God when the stock market is rising and unemployment is low. No, we pray when we need help. Not since Pearl Harbor have Americans felt so shocked and helpless as they did in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Our price as the only remaining superpower and the hubris of economic success finally gave way to expose national vulnerability and fear. Prayer does its best work in weakness and humility, not in arrogance and strength.

It is also true that a political pendulum had to swing to make room for God and prayer in American public life. The separation of church and state, uttered so frequently and forcefully that you would think it was in the Constitution itself, has been carried to far greater lengths than ever intended. For example, the school board in Madison, Wis., had decided to eliminate the pledge of allegiance because of its reference to “one nation, under God.” After 20,000 phone calls and e-mails, and an overflowing 800-seat auditorium protesting the decision, the school board reversed itself, finding the pledge was an appropriate “commitment to our democracy.” Such an outpouring and change in policy would have been unlikely before Sept. 11.

Contrary to mistaken views that have become accepted dogma in the U.S., the Constitution mandates freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. And so the tragic events of Sept. 11 caused a pendulum to swing, not just in Madison, Wis., but around the country, making room for God and for prayer that had not been there only months before. As one Wisconsin citizen said, “The pledge does not ask anyone to subscribe to any religion.” Another added, “In this time of stress and fear, we need our ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ we need our Pledge of Allegiance.”

All this leads to another change since the National Day of Prayer last year: More people have been praying. At least in the immediate aftermath of the tragedies, churches, mosques and synagogues reported significant increases in attendance across America, and some hailed a great spiritual awakening or revival. More recent evidence indicates that these indicators are returning to normal in many places. Nevertheless, as one pastor reported, “the terrorist activities caused people in America to wrestle with the frailty of life.”

My prayer, on the National Day of Prayer, was simply this: that there be room at the table of American public life for prayer. And that more Americans than ever before will honor their president’s request: “I ask Americans to pray for God’s protection, to express gratitude for our blessings, and to seek moral and spiritual renewal.” You don’t have to await a special day to do that.

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