Why Is Obama Skipping a Prayer Day Event?

The White House says it's returning to a pre-Bush tradition, but why?

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Historically speaking, the White House's decision to skip a formal event for the National Day of Prayer isn't too big a deal. So far as the National Day of Prayer Task Force can tell, no administration prior to George W. Bush regularly hosted an event to mark the day. But the Obama White House's decision has set many tongues wagging in the media, particularly the conservative and religious press.

Fox News had me on this morning to answer questions about why the White House is ending the Bush prayer day tradition, and a story on the cable network's website that has drawn many comments is headlined "Obama's Decision to Observe National Day of Prayer Privately Draws Public Criticism." A column in today's Kansas City Star is headlined "Obama Boycotts National Day of Prayer."

Why would a White House that's been so careful to avoid upsetting religious Americans—issuing controversial executive orders on hot-button social issues on Friday evenings to avoid maximum scrutiny, for instance—invite so much negative press by forgoing a prayer day event?

The White House has declined to explain why it's skipping the event, though it stressed that there was no annual prayer day event at the White House prior to Bush. What makes the decision more mysterious is that, to date, Obama has gone out of his way to showcase the role of prayer in his life and administration. To wit:

  • White House spokesman Robert Gibbs emphasizes that the president prays daily.
  • Obama is the first president in recent history to regularly opens his rallies with prayers that have been commissioned and vetted by the White House.
  • The president invited huge interest in the prayer portion of his inauguration by giving the invocation slot to Rick Warren, the nation's highest-profile pastor.

There are a couple of obvious reasons that Obama might want to skip a formal ceremony for the National Day of Prayer. The official task force for the event operates out of Focus on the Family, a longtime critic of Obama and of Democrats generally. It would have been awkward to have Focus's James Dobson on the White House grounds.

Then again, Obama has courted high-profile religious conservatives with more zeal than any other Democrat I can remember.

Another explanation for skipping an event: The Obama team might not have wanted to needle its generally secular base after catching so much flak over the Rick Warren inauguration appearance, expanding White House faith-based initiatives, and inviting conservative evangelical Tony Dungy onto its faith advisory council.

But Obama hasn't yielded to those pressures in the past.

All of which is to say that I'm somewhat mystified as to why Obama skipped a formal prayer day event. Your theories?