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Dozens of Heads Were Bowed

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 4, 2007

Let us pray.

Let us pray that, on next year's National Day of Prayer, there is better attendance at the "Bible Reading Marathon" on the West Front of the Capitol.

Organizers put out 600 folding chairs on the lawn -- the spot where presidents are inaugurated -- and set up a huge stage with powerful amplifiers. But at 9:30 a.m. yesterday, not one of the 600 seats was occupied. By 11 a.m., as a woman read a passage from Revelations, attendance had grown -- to four people. Finally, at 1 p.m., 37 of the 600 seats were occupied, though many of those people were tourists eating lunch.

Where was everybody?

"This isn't that kind of event," explained Jeff Gannon, spokesman for the host, the International Bible Reading Association. Gannon, actually a pseudonym for James Guckert, had earned fame in 2005 representing a conservative Web site at White House briefings until it was revealed that he posted nude pictures of himself on the Web to offer his services as a $200-an-hour gay escort.

Let us pray for the power to understand how Gannon made his way from HotMilitaryStud.com to the International Bible Reading Association.

* * *

While we are at it, let us pray for the atheists, because -- Lord knows -- they need it. To protest the National Day of Prayer, American Atheists held a counterdemonstration across from the White House yesterday, called the National Day of Reason. Rick Wingrove, co-founder of a group called Beltway Atheists, stood on a coffee table in Lafayette Park and used a bullhorn to get his message out.

The atheists directed particular irreverence at President Bush. "This is the beginning of a theocratic dictatorship, or maybe a better name is a holy decidership," Wingrove announced. "You might as well be reading the charter documents for the freaking Taliban."

But those participating in the National Day of Prayer did not find the National Day of Reason to be much of a threat. Wingrove attracted a crowd of only five fellow atheists, and they reported no confrontations with believers. Just "lots of tourists and schoolkids," said one man handing out Beltway Atheists literature.

* * *

Let us pray, as well, for the beleaguered practitioners of Christian street theater, for they deserve greater press coverage.

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition scheduled a "National Day of Prayer observance" and news conference for 3 p.m. yesterday in front of the Supreme Court. Gannon, wearing a Marines baseball cap, arrived to help with the press outreach.

But the event attracted only one photographer (from the Washington Times), one reporter (author of the Washington Sketch) and not a single television camera. The participants themselves were late, and only eight showed up.

Mahoney acknowledged that his total attendance was only slightly larger than the atheists' six. "Yeah, but we had a bigger crowd at Cannon," Mahoney boasted.

This was true. In the storied Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building, 350 people came for the day's main National Day of Prayer event. But even this crowd, secure in their numbers, felt endangered.

"Today we seemingly live in a society totally dominated by secularism," James Smith, the Mississippi chief justice, told the believers, "which would without our vigilance, I submit, remove all vestiges of the Bible, religion and prayer from our government."

Smith chose an odd location to speak of encroaching secularism: He and fellow participants spent three hours praying in a government building with a military band and color guard, the House chaplain, a senior military commander, several congressmen and a member of the president's Cabinet; earlier in the day, many of the same people were at the White House to hear Bush tell them "our Eternal Father inclines his ear to the voice of his children."

* * *

Finally, let us save a prayer for the Democrats, who don't have a prayer of keeping up with Republicans on Prayer Day. Some of them attended Bush's event at the White House. Others released statements recognizing the day; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer even found Democratic roots in the occasion, saying that "55 years ago, President Harry Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer."

But the National Day of Prayer Task Force was run by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, one of the most influential conservative Christian leaders in the country. That explains the list of speakers at the main event in the Cannon Building yesterday, which included Bush Cabinet member and former Republican national chairman Jim Nicholson as well as Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), the House's leading opponent of gay marriage.

Barbara Byerly, a member of the National Prayer Committee, introduced some abortion politics in her prayer for the judiciary: "We thank you for the recent decision, oh God, to protect that unborn child."

The closing lines of Byerly's prayer drew a loud ovation in the caucus room. "The power of God consumeth," she said. "We pray that that name is above every, every name, that by mention of that name, everything is going to bow and every tongue is going to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

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