Prayer in the secular republic

March 30, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

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 Civil Liberties Union 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:

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