Most Americans Support ‘Non-Sectarian’ Prayer

As the Supreme Court prepares to rule in Greece v Galloway, a case involving the question of whether a local legislative body can open their meetings with prayer, a new survey finds that Americans overwhelmingly support such prayers as long as they are relatively generic:

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on the constitutionality of prayer at public meetings. But a new survey finds U.S. voters clearly favor prayer – as long the public prayer is generic and not specifically Christian.

Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind survey asked about attitudes on high profile cases before the court, including Greece v. Galloway. That case addresses whether elected officials can open public meetings with religiously specific prayers, such as praying in Jesus’ name.

Most registered voters (73 percent) said “prayer at public meetings is fine as long as the public officials are not favoring some beliefs over others.” And 23 percent said “public meetings shouldn’t have any prayers at all because prayers by definition suggest one belief or another.”

The key, however, is that this case centers on generic prayer that is “harmless, if not uplifting,” said Woolley. “Americans have become more used to the idea that one denomination is not necessarily privileged over another. Even unbelievers — atheists who would say prayer ‘is not for me’ — approved” of allowing nonspecific prayer.

I think this demonstrates how much influence Christian privilege has in our culture, even for self-described atheists. The notion that prayers are okay “as long as the public officials are not favoring some beliefs over others” is simply incoherent. The very act of prayer automatically favors some beliefs over others, no matter how generically it is written in terms of the deity it addresses. It requires people to sit through the religious exercises of others for a religion they do not share in order to participate in a public legislative body.

There is absolutely nothing preventing those who want to pray before a city council, school board of county commission meeting from doing so individually or collectively outside of the meeting itself. They can pray at home before they go or in their offices before going into the meeting room, yet they are absolutely insistent that everyone else be made to sit by while they perform religious exercises. This is about cultural hegemony and nothing else.

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  • eric

    This is about cultural hegemony and nothing else.

    I absolutely agree. I suspect that a lot of that 73% would not initiate prayer independently on their own; they are merely signaling that they are willing to legally tolerate it when others feel the need to perform it.

    I also think that a lot of what we are seeing here is just basic human psychology and has little to do with religion per se. IIRC, studies that look at opt-in and opt-out choicing show that there is a significant portion of people that will just go with the default, whatever that is. When you give them opt-in, they stay out. When you give them opt out, they stay in. I think we’re seeing the same effect here; I bet a very large chunk of that 73% is not so much ‘pro prayer’ as they are ‘pro status quo,’ and I bet that if no prayer was the status quo situation, the percentages would be reversed. This is a situation where the squeaky wheel is getting the grease; it’s not a situation where 73% of the wheels are religiously squeaky (probably a bad mixed metaphor, but I think you get my meaning).

  • Die Anyway

    re: atheists who would say prayer ‘is not for me’ — approved of allowing nonspecific prayer.

    They obviously didn’t ask me or any of my avowed atheist friends. Anything “nonspecific” enough to suit me wouldn’t be considered “prayer”. Maybe a bit of “good advice” or a “moment of science” but not prayer.

    The fight goes on…

  • Parse

    I’d be interested in a followup study, to see what exactly people consider nonsectarian prayer. I’d guess that what most people consider ‘sufficiently generic’ is heavily biased towards their own faith.

  • http://festeringscabofrealityblogspot.com fifthdentist

    A few weeks ago a state rep. here had an op ed piece in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which he declared that the impasse at the constitutional convention only was broken because of Benjamin Franklin’s brainstorm to open their meetings with prayer. Apparently they just couldn’t get shit done unless the said Betelgeuse three times. Sorry, unless they said Jesus three times.

    I found a reference to it on his Facebook page where I pointed out that Franklin’s suggestion not only wasn’t passed, meaning there were no deity invoked, but only three people voted with Franklin on the issue — I’m guessing he got support from South Carolina and Georgia. So the overwhelming majority were against the invocation of magic man.

    I checked about two weeks later and it had not been taken down. But it didn’t look like the representative — or anyone else — spent much time on his page.

  • Alverant

    Let’s test the acceptance of one of these “generic” prayers by having it mention “Goddess” or “Gods” or “Deity” instead of “God”.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Somehow I suspect that where “our heavenly Father” would be “nonsectarian,” “powers of Earth and powers of Air” would not be.

  • Alex

    Do generic prayers start with “to whom it may concern”?

    “We are grateful for various things, and hopeful concerning other things in the future, for which we may or may not receive supernatural help. Amen”

    Anything beyond that? Sectarian.

  • eric

    I’d be interested in a followup study, to see what exactly people consider nonsectarian prayer.,

    No doubt what they see as ‘nonsectarian’ would reflect their own personal beliefs.

    I’m more interested in the survey question “If your local government meeting did not start with a prayer, would you suggest one be added?” I suspect the numbers would be much, much lower. The current survey tells me that about a quarter of the people are bothered when it (public prayer) occurs, but that is very different from saying three quarters of the people want/support public prayer.

  • eric

    @7: the most truly ‘nonsectarian’ prayer is probably Robert Zelazny’s agnostic’s prayer. Which would be very amusing to hear once or twice at the start of meetings, but I think even that would get old and annoying after a short while.

  • caseloweraz

    “Oh great AllahJesusOdinZeus, we ask your blessings on our group. Amen.”

    It has the virtue of brevity, but some would say it’s not inclusive enough. Perhaps a metaprayer would serve better:

    “Invoking one or more deities with praise and thanks, motivated by hope for success in current endeavors.”

  • Larry

    Generic Prayer Lite® – All the ridiculous BS of regular prayer but with only half the mythical Überbeing

  • cry4turtles

    Whatever happened to the totally non-sectarian moment of silence? It was my power nap time at school.

  • John Pieret

    This is about cultural hegemony and nothing else.

    Well, yes and no. It is rather like how the wingnuts praise the Constitution, while doing their darnedest to undermine it … it is a kind of marker, almost a verbal tick, by which people try to show that they are a part of the community. The fact that even non-religionists (I would hesitate to say “atheists”) agree is more a sign that no one takes it seriously than that they think religion has hegemony.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Americans overwhelmingly support such prayers as long as they are relatively generic

    define “relatively generic”.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Robert Zelazny’s agnostic’s prayer. Which would be very amusing to hear once or twice at the start of meetings, but I think even that would get old and annoying after a short while.

    Is there a downside?

  • Crimson Clupeidae

    Also, ‘non-sectarian’ already implies xian. We saw what happened when congress opened a session with a hindu prayer… what was that, two years ago now? And didn’t they invite an imam recently, with a fair amount of noise (probably from Pam Geller)?

    You’re right Ed, in that prayers are automatically exclusive exercises.

  • doublereed

    Come on, you don’t have to be a raging anti-theist to recognize that prayers before government functions are creepy. Same with the pledge.

  • Synfandel

    A public meeting should start with a call to order and a reading of the minutes of the previous meeting. Just get on with it and stop wasting people’s time.

  • eric

    Whatever happened to the totally non-sectarian moment of silence?

    Not enough non-sectarian God in it. Besides, you need to speak it loud because God clearly has a hearing problem – after all, look how bad his aim is even when he does answer prayers.

  • Eric Ressner

    Re: fifthdentist @4:

    … because of Benjamin Franklin’s brainstorm to open their meetings with prayer…. I found a reference to it on his Facebook page….

    So Ben Franklin has a Facebook page? I didn’t know that!

    (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

  • cjcolucci

    Of course there’s no such thing as non-sectarian prayer, but I’ve always thought most religious people are better described as conventionalists rather than as adherents to particular sects. I think most people who think of themselves as religious were brought up in a particular religion and adhere to it because they were brought up in it, and — here’s the important part — think most others should do likewise, adhere to the religion in which they were raised. The practical consequence is that they will know little and care less about non-cosmetic differences between sects. “Oh, you don’t eat pork? Fascinating.” So until a sufficiently unfamiliar religion becomes noticeable, most people won’t even think about the impossibility of non-sectarian prayer. Hence the incoherent poll answer.

  • NitricAcid

    Welcome, brothers and sisters, to Worshippers R Us, the first church of all denominations. Please open your generic prayer books and read along with me as you kneel, stand, face Mecca, or dance.

    O large person or persons of whatever race, gender, or branch of the animal kingdom. Please forgive us for whatever it is that you deem bad, and help us to do whatever it is that you deem to be good, whether that be to work hard, eat no pork, or just damn us randomly.

    (Thanks, Frantics)

  • bryanfeir

    @NitricAcid:

    Darn, you beat me to it. Took me too long to look it up for a link online because I couldn’t remember the sketch name.

    Worshippers-‘R’-Us