Today is designated the National Day of Prayer - an event that has been held since 1952. As violations of the separation of church and state go, it is pretty minor, but the symbolism is important and it is a bad idea. I am against it both on constitutional grounds and on religious grounds. Here's why...
To whom are we praying? Even among Christians, one could argue that the God we pray to is not all the same. The folk at Westboro Baptist are a clear example of this when they say that the God they worship does not love everyone... my God does. Clearly we are not worshiping the same God. I once had a discussion with an orthodox Presbyterian who told me that God had created her brother gay so that God could send him to suffer eternally in hell. That woman and I do not worship the same God. She actually came to that conclusion before me and raised it to me. And that doesn't begin to add all of the variety of religious understandings in our country. So, to whom are we praying? Should we sacrifice a chicken? Bow towards Mecca? Sit in silence? Chant a Sanskrit chant? Recite the Lord's Prayer (which version)? Pray in the name of Jesus? Burn incense? Pray in Hebrew or Coptic or Greek?
And what when the deepest prayers of our hearts conflict? I pray for the end not only of specific wars but of war in general and of the military complex... and I believe it should begin with the immediate dismantling of the American Empire. How do I find common ground with those who would pray for the literal destruction of America's "enemies?" What of those who pray for the assassination of the current president vs. those who pray for his re-election? We can't even ask forgiveness together when different groups would see America as guilty of very different sins.
Some would say to go ahead and pray specifically. They would say to go ahead and pray in the name of Jesus while likely feeling much less comfortable with a prayer to Allah or some god whose name they had never even heard before. In any case, this would marginalize many people some of whom might even feel that praying to whatever other god in whatever other way constitutes sin.
Some would answer that we should pray generic prayers that can apply to any religion... but if we do that, why bother? If the prayers are so generic, so non-specific as to not offend anyone, they have no real meaning.
Another answer is that individuals can each pray privately as they see fit... but people who pray already do that, so again, why bother?
The early Baptists knew that when the state imposes religion, above all else, it damages religion. At the very best, imposed religion weakens faith both by causing it to move to the lowest common denominator and by identifying it with the "earthly institution" of the state. At the worst, it is used as a means of rendering the actions of the state as being above judgment as they are identified with whatever god is being implored.
Finally, the state cannot grant me the right to pray as I see fit nor can it stop me from praying as I see fit. Those actions are simply beyond the power of any state. Some nations have tried to curtail faith and many more nations have persecuted people of a wide variety of religious understandings... but those who believe cannot be stopped from believing as they choose and they cannot be compelled to believe that which they do not.
None of what has been said applies to the population of Americans who do not pray at all, who have no faith in any god. Are we asking them to act against their consciences? their deeply held convictions? Or worse yet, are we reminding them that they are not really "us" and trying to dissociate them from the mainstream of our culture? Again, we are marginalizing folk.
I'm against a national day of prayer. It does nothing to deepen faith. It does nothing to bring our nation to a better place. It does serve to harm real faith and to cause divisions between people. And it clearly is unconstitutional.
That said, I have prayed today. I would have prayed anyway. Indeed, I had forgotten that today is the National Day of Prayer. There is nothing any state can do to make me pray nor to make me stop, short of killing me. So, pray if it is something that is part of your life. It is a good thing to give thanks for the positives of the USA, to ask forgiveness for our cultural shortcomings, and to pray that the negatives will change. And do it again tomorrow and every day. And work to make things better. If you don't pray, then, do something positive today that makes the world a little better. And do it tomorrow as well.