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.