Religious Freedom? Not So Fast.

The Christian responsibility, when invited to pray in public, is not to pray “in the name of Christ,” but to create unity around the righteousness that God enjoins on all humanity. 

The US Constitution cannot make American society good. All it can do is restrain us from being as bad as we might otherwise be. It isn’t the framework of a decent, just society. It is at best a bulwark against begin a terrible society.

This has been confirmed by the most recent decision of the Supreme Court, which upheld the right of a city council in New York state to open its meet ins with a Christian prayer. The court argued that such prayers did not serve to “establish religion” in violation of the Bill of Rights.

“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the court’s majority.

To backers of the court’s decision this represented a victory for freedom of religious expression, an assertion of the right of religious people to bring their faith into the public square. This wasn’t what the court said of course. A “ceremonial prayer” approved by the court cannot attempt to proselytize, exclude, or defame. In other words it cannot positively assert the truth of the Christian gospel or assert that other religious beliefs are false.

What is left, a prayer referencing positive social values “in the name of Christ,” cannot do any positive good, but is capable of excluding others. It excludes those who hold those same social values but reject belief in the Christ and keeps them from joining in asserting those values. And thus it creates a moment, even if only a moment, that the people present are not united. And if those moments become regular moments at the beginning of each council meeting then they expand to create a growing disunity in the community.

This isn’t nearly as bad as if the City Council explicitly promoted Christianity, which would be forbidden by the constitution. But the lawsuit itself demonstrates that the prayers divide the citizenry of the town and thus reduce the ability of that particular society to engage in a full free discussion of its own highest ideals.

And this means that such a prayer actually works against the establishment of God’s righteousness. It undermines God’s intention for God’s people while doing nothing to positively assert the truth of the claim that Jesus is the Christ. In the name of freedom of religion the prayer does exactly the opposite of what free religious people should wish to do.

This is why the Christian responsibility, when invited to pray in public, is not to assert one’s own religious identity by praying “in the name of Christ.” Instead our Christian task is to recognize our responsibility to create unity around the righteousness that God enjoins on all humanity.

Which brings us back to the constitution. It doesn’t promise us freedom of religion, and does nothing to encourage freedom of religion. It simply forbids Congress from curbing that freedom. This leaves it to us as Christians to wisely discern how to use the freedom we have. And in public prayer, in a multi-religious society, the best way to use that freedom is to refrain from being as vocal about our beliefs as we might want to be. Sometimes, as the apostle Paul so eloquently explained in his first letter to the Corinthians, and as Christ lived out, the greatest freedom is found in restraint.

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  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you for this.

    I have, for many years, been extremely upset when attending interfaith events where the person leading the prayer, knowing that there are non-Christians in attendance, specifically prays “in the name of Jesus,” as if to claim all the good work being done by all in attendance as trophies for Christian superiority.

  • kso721

    “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

    Christians still doing the exact opposite of the commandments of their holy book.

  • Levedi

    Very well said. It’s encouraging to me to finally hear someone else understand this.

  • jeny jhon

    check this …….

  • kso721

    “…our Christian task is to recognize our responsibility to create unity around the righteousness that God enjoins on all humanity.”

    I assert that the idea of unity asserted by the author is only an ideological utoptia. Since christianity is an aplostilic religion which firstly requires any non-christian to be taught and converted, it negates that fact that after 20 centuries of failed prophecies of second comings, there are more non-christian cultures in the world, than there are christians. I find this a huge disconnect regarding the christian teachings of the transcendence of the christian god and “god’s word via the bible”, and the fact that all other non-christian culture clearly don’t observe any bibllical teachings that didn’t exist prior to christianity. cultural blindspots?