February 23, 2007


We are a praying society

(Listen to this editorial being read)

Prayer is, and always has been, an important part of American culture.

Whether we are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or practitioners of any other religion—or none—Americans pray frequently to a higher power.

In 2003, The New York Times noted, “Only America combines such intense religious devotion with such wide religious diversity. Amid all the nation’s beliefs, one common practice stands out: whatever their religion, Americans pray a great deal.”

The Times editorial quoted a Gallup poll that found that at least three-quarters of Americans pray every day. An even greater percentage prays weekly or in times of stress.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Nor is the Times the first to call attention to it.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville published his 800-page Democracy in America in which he noted, “The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States. The longer I stayed in the country, the more conscious I became of the important political consequences resulting from this novel situation.”

Last year, James T. Moore’s book One Nation Under God examined the history of prayer in America. In his thoroughly researched book, he showed that prayer has been a constant from the earliest days to the present. Every U.S. president, whether or not he was a religious man, has asked for prayers for our country.

They weren’t all Christians in the sense of believing that Jesus Christ was divine. As David L. Holmes’ recent book The Faiths of the Founding Fathers shows, many of them were Deists. They believed that God created the Earth and human life but then withdrew and let events take their course without further interference. They did not believe in the divinity of Christ.

That was the philosophy of the Enlightenment and what was taught in the universities at the time. The Declaration of Independence displays this belief when it speaks of “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge” and “divine Providence.”

Deism was influential in the United States from roughly 1725 through the first several decades of the 19th century—about 100 years.

Nevertheless, the Deists who founded our country still believed in prayer, attended church services regularly and asked for prayers. The Continental Congress, which approved the Declaration of Independence, began each day with a prayer. When the Constitutional Convention did not, and as tempers were fraying, 83-year-old Benjamin Franklin urged the delegates to pray for “the assistance of heaven and its blessings on our deliberations.”

The one constant among Americans through the centuries has been prayer—from the early preachers, through our wars, during the country’s westward development and into the present. Black slaves used prayer to help them endure their torments. During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides prayed to the same God.

Our religious culture has produced a great number of noted preachers: men like Increase and Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, Frederick Douglas, Henry Ward Beecher, Billy Sunday, Oral Roberts, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Billy Graham and many others.

Prayer has taken, and continues to take, many forms. It can range from the three-hour services of the early pilgrims to quick prayers throughout the day.

The Jewish Psalms have remained popular prayers, not only with Jews but with Christians, too. The Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, which includes prayers for various times of the day, is composed mainly of the Psalms.

Meditation and contemplation remain popular forms of prayer for many Catholics as well as Buddhists and members of other religions. But prayer can also be boisterous and exuberant as practiced by charismatics and many African-Americans. Prayers can consist of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, contrition, petition or intercession.

Our society has become considerably more secular in recent years. Immorality, or at least amorality, seems more prevalent. There are plenty of reasons to be dissatisfied with some of the decisions of our Supreme Court. People disagree over such things as abortion, the death penalty, embryonic stem-cell research, immigration, how to help the poor and many other issues.

But prayer remains an important part of the American culture.

— John F. Fink

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