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.