Secular prayer

Most legislative bodies in this country begin with a prayer, whether by an official chaplain as in the United States Congress or by visiting clergy, who are allowed to pray according to their traditions.  But in Maryland, the House of Representatives has the politicians themselves saying the prayers, according to strict guidelines that require the prayers to be inclusive and not addressed to any particular deity.  In the word of one representative, they are “secular prayers.”

From Kate Havard in the Washington Post:

During the legislative session, the 141 members of the House begin every day with a prayer. But unlike Congress, statehouses across the country and even the Maryland Senate, where the daily invocation is led by men and women of the cloth, the Maryland House has no clergy. It’s the politicians who are the preachers, taking turns leading the chamber in its morning reflection.

They’ve been doing it for about a decade after members complained that some of the invited clergy had offended with overly Christian prayers that sometimes veered into politically touchy subjects, such as abortion. The House leadership at the time decided that inviting religious leaders was more trouble than it was worth.

Since then, the House clerk’s office has been distributing a form at the beginning of the session asking members whether they’d be willing to perform “Divine Services.” About 50 sign up every year, according to the clerk’s office.

But before they’re given the pulpit, the delegates are given a pamphlet — “Public Prayer in a Pluralistic Society: Guidelines for Civic Occasions” — that instructs them to “show respect both for public diversity and for the seriousness of prayer.”

They are to use “inclusive terms for deity,” meaning “Mighty God” or “Our Maker” is acceptable. So is “Source of all Being” and “Creator and Sustainer.” But Jesus or Allah are serious no-nos.

“The trick to the prayer is to make it secular and to avoid politics,” said Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-Baltimore). “We want to hear a prayer. We don’t want to be preached to.” . . .

Earlier this year, Del. Glen Glass (R-Harford County) walked the line, saying his prayer was “in J.C.’s name.” Others have used “in your son’s name” as a loophole.

In past years, that might have caused Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard) to lift the lid of her desk and let it slam shut, which she used to do when pastors delivered prayers that were explicitly Christian.

Now, she said, the prayers are much more likely to be “inclusive.” She said she is “grateful for incremental progress” and doesn’t slam her desk anymore. (The chamber has tightened the hinges on the lids so they won’t slam.)

On Valentine’s Day, Del. Mary Ann Love (D-Anne Arundel) led a “Love prayer.” And recently, Del. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Centreville) prayed on behalf of mothers, asking for forgiveness “for whenever we said they didn’t understand us, and for when we didn’t try to understand them.”

This year, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery County) led a Navajo prayer, addressing the “Great Spirit.” Mizeur, who is not Native American, is a practicing Catholic and said she used the prayer to expose her colleagues to “the importance of other spiritual traditions, our shared cultural heritage.”. . .

There’s one thing, however, that delegates seem to agree on: The shorter the prayer, the better.

One morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance, Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) announced the name of the delegate who would be giving the prayer. The honorable gentleman was a no-show, so Busch decided to give the prayer himself.

“Lord, bless this dignified House,” he said. “And let them do your will in their work. Amen.”

Fifteen words total.

“Best prayer ever!” shouted a colleague.

via In delegates they trust: Md. House members lead secular prayer – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    There’s no question that anyone, including politicians, can lead others in prayer. The question is whether those prayers are heard by the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The answer, since they’re not addressed to Him, is “no.”

  • SKPeterson

    I’ve wondered about that Tom. Not a great wonder, but a small one. If prayers to the Father are not through the Son or not specifically addressed to Him, then what are we to do with those prayers that Jesus described as “sighs to great for words” that the Holy Spirit would grant comfort for? We’ve probably all done that, but I could not say that I have sighed in the name of the Lord. Perhaps as a baptized child of God, my sighs are addressed to, or listened to, by God?

  • Pete

    I think your last sentence there is the key, SK. You are baptized into the name of the Lord, hence your prayers – be they formal, concluding with, “in Jesus’ name” or simply the muttered sighs you allude to – are all in the name of Jesus.

  • Trey

    Only prayers to the Triune God
    -Father, Son and Holy Ghost-are heard. Publicly it is best to be clear to whom we pray.

    The prayer to the great spirit is not inclusive. I wouldn’t participate.

  • Carl Vehse

    With the Maryland State House being 98D and 43R, an imprecatory prayer would certainly be in order.

  • Joe

    And here is the money quote:

    “We want to hear a prayer. We don’t want to be preached to.”

    That about sums up American Civil Religion. Generic prayers, no doctrine. What is the point?

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    “They’ve been doing it for about a decade after members complained that some of the invited clergy had offended with overly Christian prayers that sometimes veered into politically touchy subjects, such as abortion.”

    Sounds like somebody’s conscience is being pricked, and they want the conviction stopped.

    This is a joke. It’s syncretism, idolatry, and rebellion all rolled up into one. Forgive my “Grace” rant here, but this is as pathetic as one can get while maintaing a “religious” facade. God have mercy on those who participate in it.

  • Steve Bauer

    I don’t know. Perhaps all prayers are “heard”. It seems to me God can hear and answer any prayers He wants to. What Christians have is the promise that their prayers will be answered.

  • Tom Hering

    Steve @ 8, are you saying God can do anything? What about that which is against His nature – something evil? But the question here is: why would anyone expect the God revealed in Jesus Christ to hear their prayers when they’re directing those prayers toward another god? Or more to the point, why would any Christian think their God would hear those prayers? Unless they’re the sort of Christian who believes that all roads lead to the same God, etc., etc.

  • TE Schroeder

    Steve @8, the Scriptures are quite clear that the Lord rejects and ignores the prayers of anyone outside of Jesus Christ (Isiaah 59:2; 1 Peter 3:12) They are an offense because the people who pray them are still in their sins. And even their righteous acts are filthy rags.

    There is a sick irony in people wanting to pray to a god they refuse to identify. What kind of answer should they expect from this idol? What kind of mercy or wisdom should they expect from a figment of their imagination? Good heavens, why not just pray to each other (which, in essence, they are doing since they have set the rules for their own religious acts)?

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    I’m with the others, and have prayed for God to forgive me for attending those blasphemous times of public, secular “prayer”.

  • http://travisisthatguy.com TDoig

    @TE#10: That is an interesting point you make about the representatives praying to themselves. It struck me the same way.

  • sg

    I can’t help noticing that the “offended” obnoxious, demanding, desk-slamming delegates were women. Anyway, my girl friend in college said it best, “As soon as women got their rights, they set forth taking away the rights of others.” She was referring to abortion, but it applies in many areas.

  • Steve Bauer

    Tom @9
    I’m not interested in engaging in some philosphical “buck and wing” around the topic of God’s nature or how it’s “evil” for God to hear the sighs and goanings of His creation (which, I believe, includes all people, even if they do not know Him as He has revealed Himself in Jesus). That’s a discussion beyond my pay grade. I am trying to explore the full impications of what the Scriptures say. If I am mistaken about something, I am ready to be corrected. I do not think I am advocating universalism when I say that God is certainly able to hear any cry for mercy. I’m sure there are plenty of “prayers” issuing from the human race that aren’t addressed to any particular diety other than the “unknown god” that the Gospel promises to “color in” for us. God has not bound Himself to consider those prayers but neither is he prevented from answering such a prayer if He so chooses. He is God, after all. I believe Lutheranism has always operated with the understanding that God has bound us to “means” but that does not mean that He is bound to “means” (often in the context of Baptism). If God can save apart from the means of grace if He so chooses, even while He commands us to use the means of grace to instill saving faith, can He not choose to answer a prayer of an unbeliever even while He has bound Himself to both hear and answer the prayers of His children? God heard the prayer of Cornelius (Acts 10). Sure, Cornelius was a “god-fearer” and so had heard of, and was directing his prayers to, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But there is nothing in the text that says he even knew about Jesus much less was praying in the name of Jesus (otherwise Peter’s mission would have been somewhat pointless). So if a Jew today prays to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not knowing about Jesus Christ, does God hear that prayer and has the option of granting it, even if He has not bound Himself to do so?

    TESchroeder @10. The verses you quote, especially considered in their context, set the bar pretty high for even Christians to get their prayers answered. I’m not sure my performance is quite good enough to be sure that mine are getting through.

    I think I am accurately reflecting what Luther is saying in the small and large Catechisms: God has bound Himself through Christ Jesus to hear and answer the prayers of all who belong to Christ through faith. What He does beyond that is His business, not ours. I guess what I getting at is the question: What do we mean exactly by the word “hear”? And what do people around us hear us saying when we say God does not hear non-Christian prayer?

  • TE Schroeder

    Steve @ 14. Yeah, I guess the bar is set pretty high. In fact, beyond our reach. So, according to the Sciprtures, whose prayers could God possibly listen to if his ears are not attentive to the cries of the wicked? After all, we are all wicked. We all have iniquity. No one is righteous.

    However, a righteousness from God has been revealed in Jesus Christ. We are all sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus. All of us who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. Therefore, the Lord has decreed us righteous. We are his dearly loved and redeemed children. He is “Our Father.” That status and its privileges come only through faith in Jesus.

    While I am not willing to hand-cuff God as to what he does, I can stand firmly on what he reveals. What is reveals is 1) he hears the prayers of the righteous but does not acknowledge the wicked; 2) the righteousness we need comes through faith in Jesus Christ; therefore 3) he hears the prayers of those who are in Christ. This revelation also says he does not hear/acknowledge/answer the prayers of those who are outside of Christ, for they are still in their sins and do not please God.

  • Steve Bauer

    So far I agree with you. Now comes the question in the first part of my most recent post. Was Cornelius “in Christ” when God heard his prayer?

  • TE Schroeder

    Steve, I don’t know. In my opinion, that was a very unique period in the time of the Church which was crossing over from the Old to the New Testament. It appears that Cornelius was part of the covenant, but had not yet known that Jesus had fulfilled it. Kind of like the Jews scattered around the world to whom St. Paul preached. They were OT believers to whom St. Paul made know its fulfillment in Jesus. Some rejoiced in that fulfillment; others rejected it.

    But there is one kingdom of God, one Church, whether Old or New Testament. Abraham believed the same promsies we have — just on the other side of the timeline. His righteousness comes from the same place ours does — through faith in the promised Savior.


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