As presidents before him have done, Barack Obama proclaimed May 7 a National Day of Prayer.
The annual observance was first proclaimed in 1952 by President Harry Truman, responding to an appeal from Rev. Billy Graham.
“If ever a National Day of Prayer was needed, it is certainly now,“ U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday from his office in the United States Capitol. “When you look at the number of Christians being killed in the Middle East - killed because of their faith - I think it’s time for all us to take a moment and say a prayer for them, because they need our help today.”
Boehner marked the occasion with a short message posted on his website in a show of solidarity for persecuted Christians in the Middle East and around the world.
While organizers present the event as a non-denominational exercise that “belongs to all Americans,” the day of prayer draws participation mostly from conservative Christians and is routinely called into question by both secular and religious progressives.
Nonetheless, this year there will be ceremonies at churches as well as state capitols across the country, while in the nation’s capital, a group of particularly fervent Christians has already been reading the entire Bible on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building in anticipation.
As the Capitol Bible Reading Marathon crusaded into its fourth day on Wednesday, a woman was reading from the book of Zechariah.
“And the Lord shall be king over all the earth,” she declared.
Volunteers took turns at a lectern, and by the afternoon had finally begun the New Testament. The group was expected to finish by noon on Thursday after about 90 hours of non-stop recitation.
“It’s a way that we can pray for our nation, and so much is going on now around the world, so much unrest, and I just want to show people the love of Christ.," one of the readers said, describing the purpose of the exercise.
Some visitors accepted that love, and participated in Pentecostal-style prayer circles – raising their hands to the heavens and speaking in tongues.
Others kept their distance.
“I was in front of the White House last night and there was a guy with a bullhorn, slinging a message, and that was not very pleasant. It was just too loud,” said Jim Mahoney. But, pointing to the Bible marathon, he added: “This is fine.”
Many Americans see prayer as something that’s done at home or in a church. But Rev. Michael Hall, the marathon director, sees prayer as essential to maintain America’s standing in the world.
“I think by doing this that God will bless this nation, God will help this nation, and God will protect this nation,” he said.
The marathon is not an official event. The Constitution wouldn't allow it. But the First Amendment’s so-called “free exercise” clause does make it permissible for the local pastor to organize the Bible reading on the Capitol grounds.