Returning from a religious service (let's omit the denomination), I described it to my college roommate, who asked, "Why do those people bother to be there? What's their purpose?" I answered, "I believe that their purpose is to mean well."
I have the same reaction to most public prayer at secular occasions: little anodyne sentiments that appear to do little to establish comity and civility. Wouldn't mind dispensing with dragging God into zoning disputes and school boundaries.
But then there are those who want their public prayer full-blooded, invoking not only God but insisting that Jesus participate in the proceedings. In a recent dust-up in Carroll County, a federal judge issued an order forbidding the county commissioners to invoke the name of Jesus in their prayers, and the doughty Commissioner Robin Frazier defied it, professing he willingness to go to jail for the Faith. I hope that it does not come to martyrdom and that the courts ultimately resolve the issue.
The order came from a lawsuit from members of the public and the American Humanist Association who argued that since the public whom officials represent includes non-Christians and non-believers. it is inappropriate to offer public prayers advancing the views of their particular sect.
It does seem a shame that it would take a lawsuit to persuade public officials to observe what amounts to common courtesy. And it seems a little odd for professed Christians to appear unaware of Matthew 6: 5-6, in which the Founder's views on ostentatious public displays of piety are quite plainly expressed.
Commissioner Frazier's defiance took the form of reading a prayer attributed to George Washington that mentioned Jesus, but which turned out not to be authentic. This should come as no surprise. Though a nominal Episcopalian, the first president was evidently a Deist of the Stoic persuasion. He did not take Communion; his letters and papers, as Garry Wills points out, do not mention Jesus; and as he lay dying, he declined the offices of the clergy.
Thomas Jefferson, of course, was reviled as an infidel during his lifetime, and he edited the New Testament to preserve the ethical teachings of Jesus while excising all the supernatural elements.* And the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by John Adams with the Dey of Algiers and Pasha of Tripoli, and ratified by the United States Senate, contains a clause beginning, "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
If the circumstances were otherwise, one might expect the Constitution to contain some mention of God or Christianity, but it is simply an outline for the government of a secular republic.
What we have, then, in this secular republic, is that prayer in the civil realm, outside church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, tends it two directions: A: To the mealy-mouthed and namby-pamby. B: To the full-throated profession of belief, excluding much the pluralistic populace and edging toward triumphalism.
Myself, I'd prefer a moment or two of silent reflection before all the shouting starts.**
Mr. Jefferson was particularly proud of his accomplishment in getting Virginia to enact the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. Since it is more frequently mentioned than read, I think you might like to examine the text, which cleverly turns the teachings of Christianity against those who would use religion to compel others to particular persuasions:
Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no powers equal to our own and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.
**For the record: Brought up Presbyterian, I have been an Episcopalian for nearly forty years. I stood in church this morning and professed the Nicene Creed, out loud in public, and if you would like to talk about how I understand that text, we should sit down sometime over a couple of pints. I continue to think that Christian prayer is an excellent thing, among Christians.
And a correction: I said that the American Civil Liberties Union was a party to the lawsuit. It was the American Humanist Association. You Don't Say regrets the error.
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