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Keep Prayer and Advocacy Separate

Downtown Pensacola sign, taken by me.
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I was deeply troubled a few years back when attending a meeting of Christians called to pray for our city (Pensacola, FL). One pastor who was asked to pray for our political leaders offered a prayer that was more of a Republican agenda of things he hoped God would accomplish through our government. I was profoundly troubled by that prayer, especially in an interdenominational setting, but I would be concerned anywhere.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Sojourners, and it led me to this page calling for fasting and prayer regarding a moral budget.

Now let me be clear here. I do see my vote as a moral issue, i.e., I should advocate for things I regard as morally right. I should pray about the way I act in the public square. Further, I have no problem with praying for those in government.

What I have a problem with is combining prayer and my political advocacy. There are things I believe should be done about our budget. These result from my best understanding of how one should implement good government. I have prayed about them and will continue to do so. But I don’t ask God in prayer to do things my way, and I try never to use my prayer life or my fasting as a way to influence others in their decision making.

To a certain extent I see this as running afoul of the early verses of Matthew 6. But being well aware of the Sermon on the Mount, I must also ask if I’m being too critical.

What do you think?

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  1. jeff says:

    I agree with you as to public prayer and i think that’s a matter of sensitivity to others. But with my own prayer life, if I think we should have marriage equality for example, I will not hesitate to ask God to accomplish that unless God doesn’t want to and I can’t know that ahead of time.

    1. I think you make a good point about public vs private prayer. One wouldn’t be doing advocacy when praying in private. Then one can simply talk to God.

  2. Martin LaBar says:

    Jesus told us we should pray that we be delivered from evil, but I don’t think we are to name political causes as evil in our prayers, without very good reason. I think it would have been OK to pray that the Nazis, or Stalin, be restrained, for instance. Good title.

  3. You aren’t specific about the details of the prayer, but I think it’s become a fine line between moral and political in a few areas. Two examples are abortion and marriage. I can easily see them being framed as a moral, from either side of the aisle, as each has to do with how best to treat your fellow people, from the perspective of the law. Health care is also border-line. Some would consider insuring 45M people to be a moral imperative, other frame it in terms of bankrupting the country, but both goals are morally commendable by themselves. Other items are clearly not moral issues, but are merely issues of wisdom… how best to supply ourselves with oil, how best to finance political campaigns, whether unions or employers are better equipped to determine employee pay and benefits. Yet, every issue I’ve listed above is political. But let me get back to the morality examples…. suppose you’re praying in public, and you are deeply troubled over something that you believe will define the very soul of our country, and sides are not divided. The choice seems pretty easy… you say the prayer. But then one day one side decides to politicize it, and now you have two sides… it’s no less of a moral issue now. But, if I understand your point, the prayer now becomes less appropriate, while in fact that same division makes the prayer even more imperative.

    Examples. In public: Can I pray that people stop getting abortions, if I do not pray for the overturn of Roe v. Wade? Can I pray that every child be provided a mother and a father, if I do not pray for survival of the Defense of Marriage Act? Can I pray that every parent be able to defend their families against violent crimes, if I don’t pray for the defeat of handgun bans?

    By the way, I’m not sure what my own answer is, but I am interested in how far you have thought this through.

    1. I think you ask excellent questions. I was asked similar questions elsewhere. I think I would describe myself as troubled by certain prayers, and not definitely condemning them.

      Here’s how I have it divided in my mind right now. I haven’t always felt this way, but I’ve been moving this way for some time.

      In private prayer, I simply open my heart to God. If I’m thinking that a certain candidate ought to win and another to lose, I’m going to tell God about it. If I think a certain moral issue needs action on the political level, I’m going to tell God about it. I do that for the same reason that I tell God if I’m angry. He can handle it, and he already knows how I feel, so let’s just be open.

      I believe public prayer should allow participation by all. My personal choice would be not to offer a prayer at a government function, for example. I cannot pray for the whole group under those circumstances, or if I can, the prayer will be proforma. I don’t think offering such a prayer is a moral lapse. I simply would choose not to offer it.

      In a church setting, I would do my best to express things in such a way that the whole congregation can say an “Amen.” Thus, my prayer on moral issues, whether we’re talking about abortion or health care, I’m going to pray for God’s guidance to leaders, that our leaders would take a moral stand, but I’d leave out the specific advice.

      I’d be uncomfortable with political prayers in most groups even where people generally agree on the issues. I can imagine a gathering in which such prayer would be appropriate; it’s just not the sort of gathering I frequent.

      My core principle here is that public prayer is corporate prayer. It’s not me praying my own prayer in public, but rather me offering a prayer for the group in question. If something I say is not something to which that group can say an “Amen” I need to leave it for another setting.

      I’ve been asked whether my concern is offending the people at the meeting. Anyone who wonders this should just see what I’ll do when invited to give my viewpoint. In that case I have no problem making what I think very clear and if it offends, too bad. I’ll even let everyone know that, when I pray in private, my prayers reflect my morality, though I also do invite the correction of the Holy Spirit, as I think we all should do.

  4. I love your answer. This guideline certainly sums it up for me:
    “If something I say is not something to which that group can say an “Amen” I need to leave it for another setting.”

    When put that way, praying on even a moral issue about which that group is divided is certainly inconsiderate. Even if they weren’t divided on it before, they are divided on it now. If I think it needs a group prayer, I can invite those who are also concerned to come and pray with me on it… and even then I try to qualify my prayers with, “… thy will be done” as opposed to mine. “Show us your will in this area, and what you would have us do, if anything, because we know your will is perfect, and we don’t know everything.”

    I like your answer. Amen.

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