President Obama is distancing himself from the National Day of Prayer by nixing a formal early morning service and not attending a large Catholic prayer breakfast the next morning.
All Mr. Obama will do for the National Day of Prayer, which is Thursday, is sign a proclamation honoring the day, which originated in 1952 when Congress set aside the first Thursday in May for the observance.
For the past eight years, President George W. Bush invited selected Christian and Jewish leaders to the White House East Room, where he typically would give a short speech and several leaders offered prayers.
Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that the president is simply reverting back to pre-Bush administration practice.
“Prayer is something the president does every day,” he said. “We’re doing a proclamation, which I know that many administrations in the past have done.”
Pressed by reporters as to the lack of a formal ceremony, Mr. Gibbs said the proclamation was Mr. Obama’s choice.
“That’s the way the president will publicly observe National Prayer Day - privately, he’ll pray as he does every day,” Mr. Gibbs said.
Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Committee, said the group was “disappointed in the lack of participation by the Obama administration.”
“At this time in our country’s history, we would hope our president would recognize more fully the importance of prayer,” said Mrs. Dobson, who occupied a prominent seat in the front row for the ceremonies during the Bush administration.
Although the annual East Room events started with Mr. Bush, President Reagan hosted a Rose Garden event in 1982 and President George H.W. Bush scheduled a breakfast in 1989.
President Clinton did not host any special observances, according to the National Day of Prayer task force.
Some evangelicals said they were not surprised by Mr. Obama’s decision.
“For those of us who have our doubts about Obama’s faith, no, we did not expect him to have the service,” said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. “But as president, he should put his own lack of faith aside and live up to the office.”
Referencing a remark the president made at a recent press conference in Turkey that Americans “do not consider ourselves a Christian nation,” she added: “That was projecting his own beliefs, but not reflecting what the majority of Americans feel. It’s almost like Obama is trying to remake America into his own image. This is not a rejection of Shirley Dobson; it’s a rejection of the concept that America is a spiritual nation and its foundation is Judeo-Christian.”