Union University
Union University Dept of Language


The Populace, Prayer, Pride, and the President

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

May 5, 2009 - According to data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, prayer is a significant aspect of American daily life. Almost 6 out of 10 Americans reportedly pray daily, regardless of religious affiliation.

As prominently as daily prayer seems to figure in the lives of American citizens, one would think that the upcoming National Day of Prayer would be a significant event for the new Obama administration. However, according to a recent news report, the White House plans to sign “a proclamation honoring the National Day of Prayer” while dispensing with the ceremonies of previous administrations.

As a matter of sheer statistics, this move by the Obama administration makes sense. The same Pew Forum study reports that daily prayer is more likely among those who are old (65+), poor (less than 30K annually), or women. The lowest reported percentages of daily prayer are found among the youngest (18-29), the richest (100K+ annually), and the men (only 49% compared with 66% among women). Thus, President Obama falls within a demographic that, at least statistically speaking, makes it less likely that prayer is central to his daily life.

Of course, statistical inferences invariably require extra prudence. For according to the same study, “Historically Black Protestants” report the third highest percentage of daily prayer – ahead of “Evangelical Protestants” and behind (!) Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jesus’ warnings about the beam in one’s own eye come to mind here.

Still, the trends are telling. Prayer, by its very nature, constitutes a recognition of creaturely dependency. It is an acknowledgement of one’s humble estate in the presence of God’s sovereign rule. Those who by virtue of age, socio-economic condition, or gender already experience life in a way that is not marked by mastery or control are more easily given to prayer – or perhaps less given to the pride that prevents prayer. By contrast, those whose life experience leads them to believe that their own personal destiny is within their material grasp are less inclined to view themselves as needy – as creatures of the dust whose very life depends upon the sustaining breath of God at every moment. For these, pride precludes prayer.

Regardless of President Obama’s personal prayer habits, his administration’s move away from giving marked significance to the National Day of Prayer is consistent with the explicit philosophy of his campaign slogan, “Yes We Can!” Wherever we are consumed with celebrating the powers of human achievement, we are less likely to acknowledge that Power upon Whom those very human capacities depend. Let us hope and pray that our current national self-reliance does not turn out for us like it did for Babel.