Don’t expect Martin Zender to be in the shade
of a tree beside some city hall on Thursday
For a National Day of Prayer observance.
"The National Day of Prayer is a national disgrace," he said.
Moreover, he said, it is "scripturally incorrect."
"Jesus condemned public prayer," he said. "He said, ‘Go into
your room, shut your door and pray to your father privately,’ (Matthew 6:6).
National Day of Prayer directly contradicts Christ’s command."
Zender, a former Catholic and author of "How to Quit Church Without
Quitting God: 7 Good Reasons to Escape the Box," raises a variety of issues
surrounding the National Day of Prayer.
"I think most people roll their eyes at it," he said. "I think
the evangelicals are the ones who are really gung-ho for this, and they are
trying to get the average person into it and excited about it."
An iconoclastic critic of organized religion, Zender said public prayer runs
counter to "the most powerful prayer in the Bible: Thy will — not my will
— be done," referring to Matthew 6:10
"The people are clamoring, ‘God bless America,’ and you see that on
every church sign since 9/11, and it especially comes into play with the
National Day of Prayer because that is basically what we are doing. We are
begging God to bless America in a way that we think would be in our best
Instead, the "God Bless America" words should be replaced by those he
found on one bumper sticker, "America, Bless God," he said.
"Man, that was so good. It stopped me in my tracks," he said.
"Finally, the priorities are straight."
While National Day of Prayer organizers "can sugarcoat it" and say
"we just want to get people talking to God again," the reality is
"we want another day of comfort and blessings in the good old U.S.A."
"The entire premise of the National Day of Prayer is that God responds to
numbers and that he doesn’t know what he should do unless we tell him —
loudly and repeatedly," Zender said. "Rather than man needing help
from God, National Day of Prayer assumes that God needs help from man."
Zender, 42, who gave up a postal career in 1993 to go into full-time religious
writing, said the national observance is being orchestrated by the Focus on the
Family ministries in Colorado Springs, Colo., founded by the Rev. James Dobson.
His wife, Shirley, is national chairman this year.
"National Day of Prayer doesn’t work," Zender said. "Shirley
Dobson has lamented in ‘Focus on the Family’ (magazine), ‘We (the United
States) are known as No. 1 in violent crime, No. 1 in divorce, No. 1 in teen
pregnancies in the western world, No. 1 in voluntary abortions, No. 1 in illegal
drug use, and No. 1 among industrial nations in illiteracy.’ " Zender
calls that a "strange situation for a nation praying like crazy."
"Jesus himself spoke about not praying like the nations, using many words
and repetitions and all that," Zender said. "I get the feeling from
Colorado Springs that the more millions of people we get together on this, the
more we rattle God’s chains and we get him to do something. I think that is
very detrimental to people’s conception of God."
But the Arizona coordinator of National Day of Prayer discounts Zender’s
"While I think personal prayer is extremely important, gathering together
to pray collectively is also extremely important," said Louise Davis of
Glendale, noting how the first Continental Congress, George Washington, Abraham
Lincoln and others called for national prayer in the darkest hours of American
"Sometimes national days of prayer have been held because of national
emergencies," Davis said, "and people have really focused all together
in prayer. When there is a focused effort and endeavor by a large group of
people, God has historically moved to turn the tide of events over a
She quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people who are called by my name will
humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,
then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their
At age 20, Zender launched his own spiritual quest to know God and left the
"institutional assembly" of the Catholic Church.
"I came to see organized religion as a box," and the National Day of
Prayer is one way it is manifested, he said.
The prominent participation of political leaders in it "makes me really
suspect," he said. "Whenever you see religion and politics holding
hands, we’ve got trouble."
"I believe Jesus Christ is my savior — I am just not a member of his fan
club," he often tells people.
"People are really fed up with formality," he said. "Since 9-11,
people are not getting answers to their deepest questions in their
He points to the rush of people to houses of worship after the terrorist
attacks, but a month later, worship attendance had returned to pre-attack
"I think people are more disillusioned than ever because they thought the
church was ‘going to give me answers to my deepest questions,’ " said
Zender, who sees a growing grass-roots movement of people distrusting organized
"Those people need to see that they can worship Jesus Christ outside the
institution. . . . The institution does not have the answers. It is full of
He said his favorite saying is, "Believe in God, no matter what the clergy
— Spiritual Life editor Lawn Griffiths can be reached by e-mail at