Memorial Day: A day of Prayer?

Apparently so, as the US Federal Government proclaimed it in US Code, Section 116, stating in part that today is the day the government will be “calling on the people of the United States to observe Memorial Day by praying, according to their individual religious faith, for permanent peace…” I’ll set aside for now the argument that the US Government’s foreign policy seems in contradiction with the goal of a permanent peace, unless permanent peace is to be obtained through frequent, violent military interventions, some of them very long-term. We might also add that assassination by drone seems to be an instrument for the pursuit of peace by the US Government. The issue at hand is not the proclamation per se, but that the government of the people has proclaimed that this day be one of religious prayer.

Memorial Day didn’t start out as a day of religious prayer, but rather a day to decorate the graves of fallen comrades who had died in defense of their country after the Civil War. It expanded after World War I to include honoring the dead from all American wars. It was not until 1950 that the US Congress called upon the President to issue a proclamation making Memorial Day a day of national prayer for a permanent peace.

Religion offers the false consolation of an intervening god, one who listens to prayers and, if you make the right pronouncements and propitiation, may even grant them. It also attempts to offer some solace when our loved ones die, as we are told by the clerics that they live on in the spirit world. Perhaps this drove the US Government to make such a proclamation following World War II, when so many lost their lives to bring about the end of the madness mankind had let loose upon the world. In the face of such horror and atrocity, even a government who prohibits the establishment of a religion apparently felt the overwhelming need to ask its citizens to at least pray in whatever religious manner they believe in.

The United States is by law, and by design, a secular nation. While its citizens are religious to a large extent, the changing demographics have shown that the only growing faction of American society in regards to religious faith is the non-religious. Over 16% of Americans now claim no allegiance to a religion. 28% state that religion is old fashioned and out of date, and a full 34% state that religion is not an important part of their daily lives.¹ Arguably, the US Government’s Memorial Day proclamation leaves these Americans excluded. It’s time for Congress to change the language of the US Code to make it more apropos both for its citizens and its founding principle of secularism, as well as properly recognizing this day for what it is: a day of mourning.

Having a goal of permanent peace is as far fetched as expecting there to be an intervening deity who can bring it if human beings just pray for it. The history of mankind is overrun with war and the American history is no different. Let us mourn for our dead, and honor them by truly attempting to avoid adding to the death toll. A foreign policy built on freedom, trade, diplomacy, advancement, education, and human solidarity is the only way to move toward a more peaceful existence. Sadly, that seems as far fetched as asking for a god to bring it.

To the families and friends of our men & women lost at battle, my thoughts are with you and I grieve with you. May you find your own internal peace with your loss, and be able to move on instead to a celebration of their lives.

¹ Gallup


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