Prayer in the Public Forum

I’m not one of those atheists/agnostics/non-Christians who is trying to take your prayer away from you. (In fact, I’d debate that atheists/agnostics/non-Christians are not trying to take your prayer away.) I think there’s a time and a place for everything and I, being somewhat spiritual, am not going to scream discrimination because a prayer is said from time to time in public. However–and this is a big however–I think that 1) there is a time and place for prayer in public, and 2) if prayer is to be invoked in public, the wording should be carefully considered in order to be inclusive.

Yes, “inclusive”–that dirty, word cast about by liberals trying to muck up our human language for a few minority groups. Most neo-cons (who are generally white males) find having to be inclusive cumbersome and annoying. They don’t want to be inclusive–they want all these minority groups to conform to their standards. It doesn’t matter that society innately bends in the favor of the white Christian man. In the view of the neo-con, all minorities should aspire to this standard. And why not? Because they view their way as the “right way.”

I’m not a huge fan of public prayer. To me, prayer, and your underlying religious beliefs, is a deeply personal thing. Do I pray? I guess you could call what I do praying, though I like to say “meditate.” None of it is out loud and I rarely share it with anyone else. I don’t think it’s necessary to pray before meals, but will do it if I’m obliged to by a greater majority of people, though I rarely actually say anything–I let the host or whoever do the talking. Having been an atheist most of my life, now more recently spiritual as a UU, I feel a bit embarrassed and awkward when people ask me to pray with them publicly. Still, I do it, if it makes the people I’m with feel better.

I guess the same could be said of my view of public prayer–the type that occurs around special events where there is an invocation or benediction. I just put up with it, generally. It makes me feel, again, awkward and embarrassed, but I’ll partake if I must. If you would ask me to lead a prayer, I would decline. If you are of a specific religious persuasion, you probably wouldn’t like the generalities of my prayer too much anyway (I would probably replace the word “God” with “Oh, Great Unknown Force of Creation” or something equally as hippy/new-agey as that.)

Though I would never call up the ACLU to bring up a case against prayer in a public arena (such as a commencement or an inauguration), I would have to admit that I’m of the opinion that anything in public–i.e., not in a church or at dinner with family–should not involve a prayer. It’s that whole separation of church and state thing. And I don’t think it’s fair to inflict a religion-specific prayer on a mixed audience who could be Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc. etc. Just because Christianity is the majority in this country does not give it the right to be the default prayer structure for everyone in public.

I think prayer is totally inappropriate in public schools. Here’s where I might call up the ACLU. I don’t think prayer is going to make the schools any safer (if you are a true believer, you believe that all happens according to God’s plan anyway, so you have to think that those who die in school shootings were “supposed” to die). I don’t think a reverence to any deity not enforced at home is going to make a kid any better. If you want your kid to pray in school, send them to a private school where such is allowed. Public schools are full of kids of all kinds of backgrounds and to expect them to pray to your deity is ridiculous. I don’t think a moment of silence is appropriate either.

The whole prayer discussion was a source of contention in my high school. The year I graduated, our school board had ruled that we would no longer have a prayer to open our graduation ceremony. Our principal at the time, obviously a man of the faith, was really upset and implored our valedictorian and salutatorian to begin their speech with a prayer. Fortunately for him, the salutatorian was a Christian, so the prayer got said. But I fumed. Had I been smart enough to be the valedictorian or salutatorian back then, I would definitely have not said the prayer because he was infringing on my rights to free speech. Secondly, at the time I was an atheist. Even as a somewhat spiritual/agnostic/UU, I don’t believe I would have said a prayer because, as I stated above, I don’t feel the public arena is really the place for this sort of thing. Also, since it is not in my nature to pray out loud, it is not something I would have naturally inserted into my speech anyway.

All that said, you might ask in what forum I consider public prayer appropriate. Maybe in situations of crisis. For example, if I were speaking after the 9-11 attacks, I might say something like, “Our thoughts and prayer go out to those who died at the World Trade Center.” This leaves room for people to form their own prayer in their own tongue in silence. If someone else is speaking, and they feel it is necessary, I will even allow for a group lead prayer so long as the language is inclusive and not damning of other people. In this case, you are free to use the word “God” if you must, but I would prefer the language not be like that of a televangelist where every other breath is about Jesus and not something we can all relate to–whatever our creed.

I don’t know if I’m making much sense here. I’m trying to explain the reasoning behind why I hated Rick Warren’s invocation but loved Joseph Lowery’s benediction. I felt the invocation was the meaningless rambling of a reverent Christian which really should be reserved for his congregants on Sunday mornings. On the other hand, the benediction spoke beyond the Christian dogma–didn’t try to shove Christianity down anyone’s throat–and called on humanity to get past our racial differences to try to live together in harmony. The benediction spoke of Christian principles of love and applied them in a meaningful manner for all. The invocation was just all “Jesus this” and “Jesus that”–the stuff evangelical Christians love to use to separate themselves from the rest of humanity, granting them special privilege. It was dribble; only words that evangelicals accept as fact and swallow whole. The stuff that does not sell me on Christianity and, in fact, causes me to reject the faith.

I realize that Lowery made specific Christian references that may have not been as inclusive to someone of another faith. I was raised Christian so I’ve got a higher tolerance for Christian references than others, perhaps. It just seems to me that Lowery spoke more broadly to everyone whereas Warren spoke only to Christians or, more specifically, evangelicals. Warren said nothing of bringing everyone together. And he spoke of “God’s judgment” which really offended me because it was said in that sneering exclusive way that evangelicals love to say it.

Warren’s speech was completely off kilter with the theme of Obama’s inauguration which was all about inclusiveness. Obama himself even included “unbelievers” as he listed the people which comprise Americans. At last, a president who recognizes that not everyone in America is of faith! That was a remarkably inclusive statement that gave me a lot of hope for what’s going to happen under this administration.

I don’t know. I suppose I’ve just offended half of my Christian friends out there. Please know that when I place “evangelical” in front of Christian, I’m referring to a group of which you are probably not a part. Most of my Christian friends are liberal and the Christianity they preach–the Christianity of practice and humanism–is the Christianity that does not offend me at all because I believe that I live my life in the sort of walk Christ asked us to. I just don’t believe all of the specifics of Christianity (i.e., that Christ is the son of God, that God is necessarily male, most of the Old Testament, Revelations). But I believe in the message of Christ that includes the fair treatment of all people, loving my neighbor, behaving better than baser instinct urges me.

Regardless of my own personal philosophies, I think that even if I was a full-blown Christian, my views on public prayer wouldn’t be much different. Prayer is such a highly personal experience; I think it’s rude to impose your prayer on everyone else. Being at church is one thing because you’re in a room of like-minded people (which gets really tricky in a UU church). But when I’m at a commencement or a public event, I would prefer prayer be left out. However, if a prayer must be said, it should be inclusive and talk of themes to which we can all relate. It’s not the forum to inflict your brand of religion on everyone else.

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5 thoughts on “Prayer in the Public Forum

  1. I’m not really annoyed by public prayer but I’m always a little relieved when the minister/priest/rabbi/imam/shaman just asks for a moment of silence, instead. I sure don’t know enough about the Bible to argue with the fundamentalists, but I never understood why they are so zealous about praying in public when Jesus told them to pray in their closets, with the door shut and to “pray to thy Father which is in secret.”

  2. Well, those words from Jesus conflict with Jesus’ other orders which were to “witness” to everyone so that they too can be saved. Fundies LOOOOOOOOOOOVE that part of the dogma. You might have noticed as a lot of this sort will just use any opportunity, any conversation, to bring up Jesus in an attempt to convert you. Their tactics, however, I’ve always had problems with. If they focused on Jesus’ words about love and being a better human being, I would be more likely to jump on board than all of the meaningless stuff they sputter about Jesus being the son of God and the only way to salvation, etc. etc. In other words, they seem unable to focus on what you can do for humanity in Christ; they always speak of what Christ can do for you which always seems a little selfish to me. I want to be a better person because I have empathy for other people, not because I think it will give me some great reward in my death. If being a better person puts me somewhere better upon my death, than that’s just icing on the cake…

  3. Yeah, I’m aware of the the don’t-put-your-lamp-under-a-bushel teaching, but I think that’s different from Jesus’ specific instructions on how to pray. I think that if Christians really want to be convincing witnesses for Christ, they’re better advised to lead exemplary lives and to convert those who are open to the conversion rather than to preach on streetcorners, ring doorbells and pray on loudspeakers in public.

  4. You dont have to convince me! I have a lot more respect for Christians who “walk the walk” than the ones who stand on streetcorners <>passing judgment upon<> their fellow man. I think it’s a far more Christian thing to allow LGBT rights than to deny LGBTs the rights that heterosexuals are innately granted. Christ would have been a friend of the LGBT community, he would not have condemned them. Those loud-mouths like Warren who seek to strip rights from other human beings are not walking the walk.(Okay, I know that I’m on the LGBT soap box all the time, but it’s a cause very near and dear to my heart for a variety of personal reasons…)

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