WASHINGTON — Evangelical leaders gathered for the annual observance of the National Day of Prayer May 7 prayed for President Obama but criticized his decisions to not mark the day with a White House event or send a representative to their annual gathering on Capitol Hill.
Observers say the change of plans from previous years demonstrates that conservative Christians have less influence in the halls of Washington with a new Democratic administration. The Obama administration issued a proclamation instead of holding a public event.
“I am sad to say this morning that this is the first time since the year 2000 that there has not been a prayer service in the White House,” said Shirley Dobson, leader of the National Day of Prayer Task Force and wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, at the Cannon House Office Building.
“I feel a void that the executive branch is not represented here.”
In his (prayer-day) proclamation, Obama said that American leaders like President Lincoln have long called the country to prayer.
“Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have come together in moments of great challenge and uncertainty to humble themselves in prayer,” he said.
“Let us also use this day to come together in a moment of peace and good will.”
At a news conference on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that while the president has chosen to publicly observe the day solely with the proclamation, “privately he’ll pray as he does every day.”
For the last eight years, President Bush had welcomed the Dobsons and other supporters to the East Room for a ceremony marking the day.
When the task force didn’t hear from the White House this year, they moved their Capitol Hill event, traditionally held in the afternoon, to a morning time slot.
“In many ways, it validates an assumption that a lot of evangelicals have felt over the last few months, which is they are not going to have as easy an entre to the halls of power in Washington as they have over the last eight years,” said Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology of Rice University.
While the change in prayer plans may reflect the ebb and flow that occurs when the White House changes political parties, it also may show that “culture warrior” evangelicals may be losing prominence while other religious groups may be gaining it.
“It might have been the most politically smart move for him not to … host the event,” said Lindsay of Obama. “Because this is not the constituency that voted for him in November and there are other religious groups who have some strong opposition to the way that the National Day of Prayer Task Force has tended to focus on the Christian-Jewish community.”
Michael Cromartie, director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Evangelicals in Civic Life program, said he thinks evangelicals still have significant influence outside the Washington buildings equated with power.
“It’s not declining influence as much as it is lack of access to the halls of power,” he said. “Their numbers haven’t gone down. It’s just their access has gone down.”
Far from leaving the scene, he predicted that evangelicals will regroup and continue to speak out on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the next Supreme Court justice nominee.
As the three-hour prayer event concluded on the Hill, conservative Christian leaders — including the Dobsons — joined about a dozen members of Congress at a news conference to affirm a House resolution on “America’s religious heritage.”
James Dobson said there that he disagrees with Obama’s decision not to hold a White House prayer event.
“We will not be disrespectful of him because of the office and we do pray for him, but I do regret his lack of emphasis on the foundation of prayer on which this country was based,” he said.