Will the National Day of Prayer Hurt Obama?

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Today is the National Day of Prayer, which by tradition is celebrated not with cake and balloons but with some attendant controversy. Just a few weeks ago, it looked as though the White House’s biggest problem regarding the day (first designated by Congress in 1952) was the fact that a federal judge ruled in April that the law directing the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer violates the establishment clause and is therefore unconstitutional. The Obama administration immediately appealed the ruling. And it also tweaked this year’s proclamation subtly to address those concerns. Whereas last year’s proclamation “call[ed] upon Americans to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings and to ask for God’s continued guidance, grace and protection for this land that we love,” this year’s document made room secularists as well as people of faith:

I call upon the citizens of our Nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I invite all people of faith to join me in asking for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection as we meet the challenges before us. [emphasis mine]

Problem solved, right? Wrong. For one thing, the White House will have to wait and see how the appeals court rules. But in the meantime, it’s dealing with one very ticked-off Franklin Graham (son of Billy) who was invited–and then disinvited–to a Day of Prayer event at the Pentagon today. The evangelist’s invitation was rescinded after a wide range of religious critics complained that his participation would be inappropriate–particularly at a Pentagon event–in light of Graham’s references to Islam as “evil” and inferior to Judaism and Christianity.

From a political standpoint, the question for the administration should be not whether it was the right thing to disinvite Graham but why he was invited in the first place. His comments are both well-documented and well-known. Leaving him off the original list would have caused far fewer problems than inviting Graham to speak at the event and then withdrawing the invitation. Furthermore, if the administration was simply looking for a way to reach out to Graham, it didn’t need to give him a speaking slot at a Pentagon event. The White House could instead have invited him to be one of 70 or 80 Christian leaders who attended a post-Easter prayer breakfast at the White House in early April. The White House did not extend an invitation to Graham for that event.

A large part of the problem is that the Pentagon outsources the organization of its day of prayer event to the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group run by Shirley Dobson (wife of Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson). The Colorado-based task force is known for making its observance of the day a sectarian affair–it has, for example, prevented Mormons from participating because the task force does not consider them really Christian. It was the task force that chose Graham to be the honorary chair and main speaker for the Pentagon event. It’s not crazy to ask why a group that interprets the National Day of Prayer as the National Day of Evangelical Christian Prayer is in charge of organizing a federal agency’s observance of the day.

Not surprisingly, Graham is taking the opportunity to turn his snub into a grand cause. He declared Tuesday that if Obama did not intervene to reinstate his role in the Pentagon event, it would be “a slap in the face of all Christians.” Obama did not take any action, and today, Graham went further, warning that this affair could cost Obama “millions” of evangelical votes in 2012.

Well. A few comments on that: Graham is misreading the extent to which his views about Islam are shared by his fellow believers if he thinks his disinvitation will be interpreted as “a slap in the face of all Christians.” A 2007 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll did find that white evangelical Christians were most likely (57%) to hold unfavorable views of Muslims. But it found that Christians as a whole were more tolerant–60% of Protestants and 70% of Catholics either expressed favorable views or no opinion of Muslims.

As for the possibility that Obama could suffer from evangelical buyer’s remorse in 2012, the evidence is thin. Obama did improve upon John Kerry’s support from white evangelical voters in 2008, but not by much–Obama won 24% to Kerry’s 21%. It’s a good bet that the Venn Diagram of evangelicals who voted for Obama and share Graham’s beliefs about Islam is fairly small.

Still, Graham and others have argued that evangelicals who had hoped that Obama understood their values find themselves disappointed with the policies he has pursued. Evangelical disillusionment did turn out to be a significant problem for Jimmy Carter in 1980, as those who had supported him in the previous election abandoned him in droves. But the two cases are not parallel. Carter relied on a much higher percentage of the white evangelical vote to reach the White House than Obama did–the Georgian won 48% in 1976. And they weren’t all liberal and moderate evangelicals. Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye both strongly supported Carter’s first campaign and gave him legitimacy through evangelical and fundamentalists circles. It perhaps bears mentioning that Franklin Graham did not exactly campaign for Obama in 2008.

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