Some years ago I was invited to a Congressman’s office along with leaders to discuss legislative issues that impinged on religious communities. Having concluded our conversation, the Congressman finished by observing, “If you ever want to pray in Congress, let my office know, and remember, don’t be afraid to pray in the name of Jesus.”
I’m not afraid to pray in the name of Jesus – or the Trinity – and I do all the time. But I was embarrassed by the Congressman’s remark, and I wondered why his administrative assistant had not alerted him to the fact that one of the people sitting around the table was a rabbi from a prominent synagogue in the area.
Public prayer and prayer in public institutions is a difficult matter, and it has been the subject of heated debate. It is all the more difficult because our national tradition acknowledges our dependence upon God, but it does not insist on a specific understanding of God, nor does it insist that we all even believe in God.
Public prayer, therefore, threads the difference between praying within the boundaries of our own religious communities and praying in a fashion that acknowledges our differences. It is not an easy thing to pray with integrity in a situation of that kind, and clergy will undoubtedly differ on the best way to navigate that water.
How much of our own tradition do we bring to those prayers?
How do we acknowledge that those present may not share our faith?
How do we invite others to pray with us, even if we do not share the same tradition?
Serving for sometime at Washington National Cathedral as Canon Educator, I concluded that the answers to those questions varied, depending upon the setting. We often prayed in the context of Holy Eucharist. On those occasions, the answers came easily and we prayed as any Christian would.
Interfaith services were also fairly straightforward, because the context allowed for each of us to pray in and from our own respective traditions.
But on other occasions around the city, the context was very different. Prayers of invocation and benediction were often the only prayers said. The event was not explicitly religious; the audience was an audience, not a congregation; and there was no way to know what people did or did not believe.
I have concluded that under those circumstances prayer needs to be significantly different:One: If there is a place for prayer in public settings, then that place is framed by the words “One nation under God” — not one part of the nation, not one nation led by one party, ideology or confession — but one nation in all of its differences. As such, prayers need to invite people to engage in prayer in whatever fashion accords with their own tradition.
Two: Public prayers should invite common self-examination whatever our differences, offering the possibility that we can all apprehend something of God’s guidance in a moment of prayer.
Three: Likewise, our prayers ought to be marked by gratitude for God’s providential care.
All three things can be done with integrity and, if the essence of such prayers are consistent with our respective convictions, public prayer does not need to be treated as a betrayal of our own religious commitments.
On that score, however, I am sure of this: At the opening night of the Republican National Convention, televangelist Mark Burns from South Carolina illustrated to the nation and to the world how not to pray in public.
Let’s set aside his politics. I am a political independent, and I have no interest in defending either party. That is not the issue.
The issue here is that his prayer was not a prayer at all.
Burns could have invited God’s providential care over the people assembled at the Convention. He could have invited God’s providential care over the nation and its political process. He didn’t even need to mention the other party in order to discharge his responsibility at the Convention.
But, instead, he condemned Democrats and the Democratic Party as “the enemy,” and then he invited God’s blessing on what he apparently assumes is the faithful remnant.
As such, his prayer also promoted division. It displayed a troubling arrogance about the will of God, and it made sweeping judgments about the faith and integrity of others.
He also illustrated what happens when our politics subvert our faith and theological language is hi-jacked in the name of partisanship. That partisanship is becoming more common on both the left and the right in different guises, but I don’t recall ever hearing prayer used in this fashion.
It would be better not to pray at all, than to pray in this fashion, and if all religious leaders can do is to stoke the fires of division and demonization, then public conversation would be better off without it.