When the government dictates prayer

I’m not much for displays of civil religion but there’s one recent governmental intervention that really chaps my hide. That’s where the government requires citizens to submit prayers for governmental approval before they’re uttered.

I rarely hear a prayer I agree with and I’ve yet to be too bothered by it. I expect that individuals praying publicly are praying according to their own conscience, not mine, and I respond accordingly. If I’m able to pray along, great. If I’m not, no sweat off my brow. Fact is, the prayers that absolutely horrify me the most are the ones that attempt to be “inclusive” by bringing in not just a single religion I don’t adhere to but as many of them as possible.

But this governmental trend received pushback last week and the Houston Chronicle was there to report on it. I thought the story was pretty good and since it relates to Memorial Day, today is a fitting day to look at it. Headlined, “VA agrees not to interfere with holiday prayers: Agency backs down after losing court fight over pastor’s mention of Jesus in Memorial Day invocation at Houston cemetery,” reporter Terri Langford writes:

The nation’s agency for military veterans has agreed to stay out of religious refereeing for now, backing down from its attempt to tell a minister how to craft a prayer for a Memorial Day invocation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Hindrichs told federal District Judge Lynn Hughes that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will not demand that Memorial Day prayers at Houston National Cemetery Monday be as non-denominational as possible.

I was going to criticize the use of the term “non-denominational” but I think it’s actually correct. We so often see it used by evangelical Christians as a marketing term for a particular type of Christian but it really does probably mean “not tied any religion.” I always think it’s funny, though, that these government approved prayers would be perfectly at home in some churches — so is it really accurate to call them nondenominational? I’m not sure.

The change of heart came one day after the judge granted the Rev. Scott Rainey a temporary restraining order against the agency after officials told the pastor to edit his prayer to make it as general and non-denominational as possible. Rainey’s prayer, submitted for review at the agency’s request included the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and thanked Jesus Christ, the Christian savior, in closing.

No, that’s not right. Here’s how it ended: “While respecting people of every faith today, it is in the name of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, that I pray. Amen.” That’s not “thanking” Jesus but praying in his name. Still, the story got good quotes, such as this one:

“I’ve never said a prayer in my life that didn’t end with Jesus Christ,” Rainey said after Friday’s hearing. “It was unrealistic expectation for me not to include the name of Jesus Christ.”

That’s why Rainey, who has prayed at this ceremony before, filed suit. The judge said officials at the agency were going too far and telling citizens precisely how to honor veterans:

“The government cannot gag citizens when it says it is in the interest of national security, and it cannot do it in some bureaucrat’s notion of cultural homogeneity,” Hughes wrote.

See, stories about lawsuits can be interesting. Anyway, nicely done for an update on a story that will probably include many more updates. I hope everyone is having a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. Do let us know if you saw any particularly good or bad coverage of the day’s events.

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  • Hector_St_Clare

    Honest question, since I’m used to prayers closing ‘in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’, more often than ‘in the name of Jesus Christ’: is the traditional trinitarian formula not commonly used by evangelicals nowadays?

  • Passing By

    I’ve never heard “denomination” used outside the Christian context, so I don’t think that “non-denomination” is the precise word here. All Christian prayer is, implicitly or explicitly, “in the Name of Jesus”, hence, explicitely excluding Him would be non-Christian, rather than non-denominational.

    I have never heard an evangelical invoke the Trinitarian formula in prayer. In fact, the only use of it I can think of is in baptism. Evangelical prayer typically ends with something like “in Jesus’ Name”.

  • Jerry

    This seems to be a little reported story from what I’ve seen so far. As to “chaps my hide”, a government review of prayer seems to me to be a prima facie example of a first amendment violation of the establishment clause.

  • http://eavice.wordpress.com EV


    In most theologically Baptist leaning churches, prayers end: … in the Name of Jesus… Amen.

  • Pamela Zohar

    ‘non-denominational’ is already saying ‘Christian’ to my ear. But the oddest usage I see annually around here is the December ‘interFAITH creche exhibit’! I’d dearly like to know which ‘faiths’ besides Christianity have creche exhibits in December, but I’m pretty sure the perpetrators just thought it was shorter than ‘interdenominational’.

    What do non-Christian faith divisions call their – well, their internal divisions? Judaism has ‘movements’. What about Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism? Sects?

    As for the story – ‘make it non-denominational’ sounds like ‘make it generic Christian’, and since I would object somewhat to having the government certify what prayers are and aren’t ‘acceptable’, I’d rather see the government stay completely out of the religion business altogether and dispense with the prayers entirely. But if not, then they shouldn’t be censoring them, either. Interesting story. I agree with the judge’s decision and it is an interesting case. But maybe the VA should be looking to expand their ‘prayer leader repertoire for such events, and collect a variety or something.

  • str

    There’s nothing distinctly “christian” about the term denomination.

    It is a term from sociology of religion, not a traditional term by which Christians call Christians of another stripes (schismatics or heretics would be more a traditional terminology, albeit one that is pejorative and also not limited to Chistians).

    There’s is nothing wrong in talking about Jewish or Islamic denominations. Not sure that “movements” is really that Jewish.

    Buddhism BTW also has schools.

    Another possible term is branches.

  • Dan

    I have been asked twice to offer an invocation or benediction at our local Memorial Day service. No asked me to submit the prayer in advance, and had I been asked to do so, I would have politely refused. If that meant they had to search for another minister, so be it.

  • Dave

    This is a story that deserves to be reported well and widely. It’s of interest to non-Abrahamic religions.

  • Ted de Rose

    I am very much in favor of Christian prayers, unedited and Biblically sound. If there were other folks in the audience whose sons or daughters were of another faith, a better solution would be to allow someone from their faith to also offer up a prayer.

  • Julia

    I was going to criticize the use of the term “non-denominational” but I think it’s actually correct. We so often see it used by evangelical Christians as a marketing term for a particular type of Christian but it really does probably mean “not tied any religion.”

    My understanding of “denomination” is that it is used by those Christians who believe in an invisible Christian Church that has different expressions. These different expressions are given specific names, i.e. they are denominated with different labels such as Baptist or Episcopal, but remain part of the one, big Christian invisible church.

    This concept seems to be tied in with the now-changing civil religion in the US that was previously mainline Christian. Growing up Catholic and observing US culture for 67 years, it seemed that Catholicism was not included when “denominations” and the civil religion were being discussed in the media.

    In these relativistic days I’m not surprised that Catholics and non-Christian religions are now included as “denominations”. Does that mean that even Hindus are now going to be objecting to the Church of Rome calling itself Catholic?

  • Maureen

    The point nobody is mentioning here is that “in Jesus’ Name” or “in Christ’s Name” is performative prayer language. Since the Gospel of John says that “Whatever you ask in My Name, that I will do”, a Christian praying without Jesus’ name is considered by many to be useless yammer.

    “In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen” is not the ending of a prayer. It’s the Sign of the Cross. And “in nomine Christi, Amen” and the Greek equivalent are a lot older than the US, much less US evangelicalism. :)

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: “In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen” is not the ending of a prayer. It’s the Sign of the Cross. And “in nomine Christi, Amen” and the Greek equivalent are a lot older than the US, much less US evangelicalism.

    It’s the sign of the cross, but people also use it very commonly as the ending of a prayer (for the same reason that they make the sign of the cross when they pray). FTR I’m most familiar with the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, and not really familiar at all with how evangelicals do things, which is why I asked.

    In regard to the main point, I certainly agree that Christians should invoke Jesus or the Holy Trinity when they pray, which is why I’m dubious about the merits of ecumenical prayer in general, especially at public events. When you try to make a prayer that’s general enough that everyone can appreciate it, all you end up with is meaningless mush.

  • http://ecopw.org Rev. Bill Johnson

    This story is a great example of why I oppose school prayer and believe we should all encourage separation between church and state. What the government “decrees” they want to regulate. If we don’t want the government interfering with our prayers, then we need to keep the church and state separate. Religious services at cemetaries should not be run by civic groups such as the VFW. If religious groups want to hold services then they can and should… thus allowing them to pray in Jesus name, Father Son and Holy Spirit, Zarathustra, Allah or to which ever god they choose.