Despite a few jokes by speakers to lighten the mood, the National Day of Prayer event at Capitol Hill on Thursday was solemn.
Both speakers and the audience seemed acutely aware of the pushback to the prayer day that was officially established in 1952. Though NDOP was created nearly 60 years ago, speakers repeatedly pointed out the long tradition of prayer in the country's history dating back to the founding fathers.
"America was birthed in prayer and founded on the Bible," said Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, on Thursday.
In her opening remarks, Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, spoke directly about the recent challenges to the prayer day. She noted that "a small band of self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics" had filed a lawsuit to stop the National Day of Prayer.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, who oversaw the lawsuit, decided last month that NDOP is unconstitutional because it amounts to a government call to religious action. Then later that same month, the army rescinded its invitation to the National Day of Prayer Task Force to speak at the Pentagon, essentially disinviting Franklin Graham who was scheduled to deliver the address.
"This situation that has come up in the past several weeks serves as another reminder of the relentless assault against our religious liberty and should remind all Americans to be even more diligent in defending the heritage of freedom and faith that our founding fathers fought for that have long defined our country," Dobson said.
When Franklin Graham finally ascended the stage to speak, the crowd of several hundred people stood up and enthusiastically applauded the man at the center of the prayer day controversy.
Graham, speaking slowly and emotionally, said he came to Washington to speak as a minister of Jesus Christ. Addressing accusations that he is too religiously exclusive, he said he understands there are people of different faiths at the NDOP event. However, he asked permission to speak as a Christian minister.
"I do not want to be offensive to anyone. But I only know how to pray and only know how to preach the way that the Bible instructs me," Graham said.
The evangelist and son of Billy Graham compared the society he grew up in to today's increasingly secular America. He noted that religion has been taken out of schools and young people do not understand what is right and wrong. When Graham was growing up, he said as comparison, students said the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord's Prayer and had the Ten Commandments in schools.
He then went through the Ten Commandments and noted how American society was breaking all of them.
"There is no hope. There is no hope for this nation. There is no hope for you apart from the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ," Graham said. "You see, we cannot be cleansed from our sins apart from Jesus."
The preacher said he is guilty and the nation is guilty of sins but if "America would repent" and receive Christ then God would forgive the sins.
"My prayer is that America will once again worship the Lord Jesus Christ," Graham said. "My prayer is that America will once again trust him."
"My prayer for my nation, the country that I love," said Graham, whose son is an Army Captain serving on his fourth tour in Afghanistan. "My prayer is Lord if you're willing, make our nation whole again. May we turn to you, and worship you, acknowledge you, and live by your laws and standards. God bless America."
Several military officials and chaplains spoke about the toll that the years of continuous wars have had on soldiers and their families. They noted the high suicide rates among soldiers and the high divorce rates among military families.
Americans were asked to pray for military families as they endure long periods of separation and stress.
Thursday marked the 59th annual National Day of Prayer. President Obama, despite the court ruling, issued a proclamation to recognize the prayer day.