When the Rev. Michael John leads his flock to this town center Thursday for one of the nation's 1,000-plus public prayer events, he'll choose his words carefully because God won't be the only one listening.
At high noon near a highly visible intersection, the pastor of Market Street Baptist Church will pray for new laws prohibiting abortion and gay marriage. Yet although he supports the war in Iraq as a just cause for freedom, he won't pray for victory since some in the crowd might regard the war as sin. "There are some matters where Scriptures demand a certain position," Mr. John says. "On those, I'll feel bold to pray. But I would be careful about policy in Iraq. I'm praying on behalf of the group."
Across America on this official National Day of Prayer, those who normally pray behind closed doors are going to great lengths to be seen and heard by their fellow citizens. Tens of thousands of believers will get plenty of notice as they pray on radio airwaves over Tampa, Fla.; on mountaintops near San Francisco; and on the steps of courthouses, capitols, and city halls from Columbia, S.C., to Carson City, Nev.
As they voice their values before God and neighbor in this election year, faith communities are finding prayer can provide a disarming and galvanizing type of communication around otherwise divisive political issues. But as they do, they're proceeding carefully with the aim that their prayers, however well intentioned, don't create more divisiveness in the end - and aren't demeaned or dismissed as mere political propaganda.
"Prayer is language that is nonthreatening across those boundary lines of left, middle, and right," says Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "I see it as an instrument of pausing to reflect on the level of violence we inflict on each other. My hope is that by stopping to pray, all of us - especially those in the religious middle - will open our hearts to rethink how we can use our superpower status with humility."
Thursday's events represent just some of the high-profile gatherings this month where prayer is playing a lead role in communicating political ideas. On May 1, more than 20,000 evangelical Christians gathered at Safeco Field in Seattle to hear Dr. James Dobson pray for resistance to gay marriages. On May 27, right before the Memorial Day weekend, as many as 50 cities will hold simultaneous services to pray not only for veterans and troops but also, in Mr. Edgar's words, for "victims of this war among the Iraqi people and their families."
To some, temptations to infuse the day with petitions for one political outcome or another can detract from the spiritual focus.
"It's not a time to be political," says Tressa Shaw, a missionary who expects 300 at Thursday's event in Lost Creek, W.Va. "It's a time to lift up your heart. Prayer is seeing the face of God - His will, not mine. It's saying, 'Lord, change my heart.' "
Despite this sensibility, however, national organizers have used $1.3 million in private funding in part to urge prayers for specific political successes. Beneath this year's slogan, "Let Freedom Ring," are prayers for five power centers: government, media, education, church, and family. All followers are encouraged, for instance, to pray for schools to get "back to basics" and stop "teaching homosexual propaganda to kindergartners." Even the official prayer from US Senate Chaplain Barry Black, to be read at local gatherings, seems to celebrate the war effort: "Lord, bless our military as it advances freedom's cause around the world."
"We're praying not only for the troops' safety but for success of their mission in spreading liberty in the world," says Mark Fried, spokesman for the National Day of Prayer Task Force. "Since President Bush is in leadership, we're praying that his cause will be successful."
Mixing politics and prayer can be problematic, as John of the Market Street Baptist Church points out, when those assembled can't agree on the clear moral imperative. What's more, events that bring elected officials and their religious constituents together for prayer at public buildings can feel exclusivist to the nation's 30 million nonbelievers, according to Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists.
"It makes [the prayer rally] look like a government activity," she says, noting that all 50 governors and President Bush have issued proclamations recognizing this year's National Day of Prayer. "When government gets involved in endorsing religion, the rest of us feel marginalized."
Indeed, the overtness of some of Mr. Bush's religious rhetoric has made some people - not just atheists - uncomfortable. They believe it has shaped some of his policies, from China to the Middle East.
Still, for evangelicals, prayer with an eye toward public policy is often welcome. For instance, it can help a group affirm which ideas seem to dovetail with a faith-filled worldview and which don't, according to James Wellman, a scholar of American evangelicalism at the University of Washington.
"We're talking about people who are very reluctant to go into political advocacy, but they'll do it in their prayer lives," says Professor Wellman. "They believe God can do things that no one else can do."
Prayer is sure to play a larger role in political discourse as concerns about terrorism evoke a desire to pray, according to Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. But, in his opinion, that may not lead to the best public policy.
"Prayer is really about the heart, and political life is about thinking and hard choices," he says. "That's why it's better not to mix these two."