| | | | |

The Difficulty of Appropriate Public Prayer

MSNBC.com reports that there is a bit of a kerfuffle over whether Rick Warren will use the name of Jesus in his prayer at Barack Obama’s inauguration. At the same time we have a group of atheist and humanist groups suing to prevent any prayer at all at this public event.

I confess to mixed emotions about the public prayer, largely because I think that the event reflects not only the public, but also the person who has been elected to that office, and Barack Obama is a believer. I could quite easily regard the prayer as relating more to him as a person than as something that is intended to reflect the country as a whole. While I may have mixed emotions, I would suspect that the lawsuit is doomed to failure, except in producing publicity, because we still have military chaplains and prayers to open the houses of congress, and the courts have shown no inclination to stop them.

But I have more problem with a public prayer as a Christian than I do as a political matter, something that has only been stirred up and sharpened by discussions with a friend of mine who is a pastor and who gets invited to pray at public events. There are two major points involved. First, for most trinitarian Christians, prayer in the name of Jesus (or in a trinitarian formula in some cases) is the way to pray–it is prayer. Second, just what is it that we expect a pastoral prayer at a public event to accomplish? As my friend has pointed out to me, and I agree, the public bodies over which prayer is offered are not going to actually seek God’s guidance and blessing as a group. They’re going to go right on doing whatever they were going to do anyhow. And it’s difficult to expect a public body that is diverse in beliefs to do so.

So in that case the public prayer becomes, in many ways, an act of idolatry. It is a pretense at worship, but not the reality. A critical part of the Lord’s prayer is “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Show me the public body here in the United States that intends to behave in that particular way. And with acute awareness of my atheist and other non-Christian friends, that is not a prayer that can be prayed collectively by a public body, expected to act in a secular way to govern a diverse body of people.

Were I an elected individual, I could individually pray that God guide me, even though I must express my viewpoint in non-religious terms in public debate. And note here that I can only express my viewpoint in non-religious terms if it is honestly supportable in non-religious terms. That means that I can pray the Lord’s prayer for myself, but that collectively prayed, it becomes an outright lie. Any prayer prayed in the name of Jesus is similarly supposed to be “under the authority of” as well as “in the name of” and thus, in my view, becomes idolatrous if prayed corporately on behalf of those who do not consent.

Given that there will be prayer at the inaugural event, I think the explosion of hostility over the selection of Rick Warren to offer that prayer is at best overdone. President-elect Obama, in my view, thinks he’s secure in his liberal credentials and wishes to reach out to a block of voters. That’s the political view. Thinking of it as a Christian I am much less comfortable, not because I don’t think Rick Warren can pray for, with, and on behalf of Barack Obama, but because I think it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible for him to pray on behalf of the inaugural crowd and certainly on behalf of the nation as a whole.

I understand pastoral prayers in congregations to be collective, that is that the pastor prays both for and on behalf of the people. Those who are more theologically and liturgically oriented than I am may argue this. I don’t see how this can be transplanted to the public square.

Yet we do so constantly in this country. I’m not sure where my conscience would lead me if I were a pastor. My friend doesn’t want to pray at public events (not in church), a position with which I sympathize. The only compromise position I can see is praying in public, but seeing this as praying solely on one’s own behalf, and for the gathered audience. Trouble is, unlike pastoral prayer in which I believe all participate, I think this sounds a great deal like a violation of the principle expressed in Matthew 6:1-6. The prayer becomes a public show, or perhaps a political show.

I like interfaith dialogue, but I like interfaith prayer much less. I prefer the idea that in interfaith dialogue all sides maintain their distinctives honestly and openly, yet celebrate the diversity. In my view too much interfaith dialogue involves homogenization and blandness rather than actual celebration of diversity, combined with robust but respectful discussion and debate.

Readers are free to see this as a modification or even a partial repudiation of my view expressed here, where I considered the invitation solely from the political point of view.

Similar Posts


  1. Caraleisa says:

    Excellent and interesting analysis, Henry.

    What I object to, and it’s pretty much what you said in different words, is that whoever gives the invocation is LEADING THE NATION in prayer. That’s offensive to those of us who either believe differently or not at all. To have Obama (or anyone giving a religious prayer in a public, secular ceremony) state that he’s asking for the prayer for himself only would be easier to accept. But to be told that I’m being LED in prayer in MY country which was founded on the =separation= of church and state is telling me that I’m a second-class citizen unless I am a fully believing participant in that prayer. So, no, I do not think prayer at any government event is appropriate because it is NOT inclusive, but excludes.

    Then we address the selection of Rick Warren. Some say it’s a brilliant political move, as it is a gesture of friendship to the religous right without giving them any real say in policy. But to me, it’s a gesture which, by its very nature as an honor, thus implicitly condones the positions that man holds. He’s against so much that I believe is right and fair, that I do not see his presence and actions as anything but a slap in the face of those Americans he hates.

    There are many wonderful people of faith and openness that Obama could have selected for this honor. Rick Warren, in my opinion, is NOT among them.


  2. Peter Kirk says:

    Surely Rick Warren can pray and can invite people of faith (of Christian faith, if he uses the name of Jesus as I think he should) to pray along with him, without thereby presuming that the whole nation will join in with his prayer but also without making the prayer just a show.

  3. Kievas Fargo says:

    I think the FFRF lawsuit is entirely a publicity stunt, as have been several of their other high-profile lawsuits.

    Re: public prayer in this situation, I have mixed feelings as well. If we elected a Jewish or Muslim president, I would not object to having a Rabbi or Imam lead prayer for the entire assembly.

    OTOH, I can understand the viewpoint of those who see this as a violation of the separation of church and state.

  4. Mitch Lewis says:

    The case of a military chaplain is somewhat different than that of an invited member of clergy in that the chaplain represents the government as well as his/her own faith group. An invited member of clergy does not. A chaplain has specific governmental responsibilities to provide for the free exercise for all; the government cannot impose this requirement on an invited volunteer.

    Nevertheless, there are some similarities between the two situations. I’ve written about my personal approach to prayers for military & civic events in Chaplain Prayer at Military Ceremonies.

  5. Chris Eyre says:

    I thought it might be interesting to put forward my own perspective, coming as I do from a country which does not have a tradition of being overly concerned about prayer or other religious expression in public forums. Indeed, reading what you wrote, the first thing which occurred to me was that in my time on Selby District Council, every full meeting of the Council opened with a prayer, virtually always by someone from some flavour of Christianity. I wonder in passing whether there’s much difference there from sessions of Congress?

    It was pretty much standard for such a prayer to include the plea that the decisions of ALL the councillors be guided by God, and I don’t recall much noise from the three or four who were avowed atheists and none from the agnostics or the three who espoused non-Christian religions. I did, however, discuss the issue with a few of them, and broadly report that the non-Christian believers were perfectly happy to subscribe to prayer that God inform their decisions (as they’d happily pray that way themselves, and the atheists couldn’t be bothered to complain as it was meaningless to them and just one of those things which happens in life, much as having to endure elevator music.

    None were particularly concerned about the form of words. In particular, none was concerned about the use of the formula “let US pray” imputing to them the words used. To the atheists, it was not a problem to them that the person praying was attempting the impossible, and indeed one mentioned that he translated the words into “engage your conscience NOW”… which was (he thought, and was right) pretty much the same kind of translation as the non-Christian believers were doing.

    I suppose it’s fair to say that whatever flavour of faith was present, everyone there would qualify as a “liberal”.

    1. I think that what you say reflects a rather profound difference in our cultures. Besides being separated by a common language, I think we are also separated by a common cultural heritage–or not so common.

      I think, for example, that the young pastor to whom I referred is actually offended by the idea of praying a prayer that nobody actually cares about. In praying in public, he wants to be praying for the group, and thus finds the idea of a generic prayer rather silly. He’d say that it’s OK for the atheists not to join in his prayer, but then why is he praying it in front of them, as though it’s with a for them?

      I think our culture tends to put a heavier emphasis on the religious issue, probably largely because we are more religious. There are more public religious activities on your side of the pond, but in general, my understanding is that they are more a matter of form and culture. I could be wrong, of course. I don’t know this from personal experience.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.