Christian Prayers in Government Chambers: Music to the Devil’s Ears

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This week’s Washington Post Magazine features a frightening image (at left) accompanied by this headline: Do Christian Prayers Belong in Government Chambers? 

My answer: No.  Christian prayers do not belong in government chambers.

My slightly elaborated answer: No prayers of any religious group belong in any official government proceeding.

The Post Magazine headline directs us to this article by Michelle Boorstein, The Trials and Tribulations
of Hashmel Turner
, a pastor who serves on the Fredericksburg, VA City Council and who is suing the city for the right to pray in Jesus’ name during the Council’s customary opening prayer.  It is a (generally) well-written article that describes this pastor’s journey into the ministry and elected office, and his conflict with the city government on how he prays when it is his turn in the prayer rotation.  The article also looks deeply into the relatively new arena of Christian legal advocacy, highlighting that in the past twenty years Christians have increasingly fought and won legal battles related to the practice of religion in public schools and public places.

Here’s the skinny on the legal issues involved: One of Councilman Turner’s constituents has complained about his prayer, and with the ACLU is suing him.  The city’s attorney and Mayor have asked Councilman Turner not to pray in the name of Jesus.  In response, Councilman Turner is alleging that this restriction on his prayer is a restriction on his free speech, and he is suing the city for the right to pray – that is, to speak – as he pleases during the opening prayer of Council meetings.

Here’s my take on the issue: First, the practice of having a prayer at the opening of a legislative body – even a non-sectarian, generic prayer – is incredibly stupid and misguided.  Prayer is an act of faith for people of faith.  How one prays, to whom one prays, with whom one prays – these are all matters dictated by one’s conscious and faith, and not something to be prescribed as part of the proceedings of a civil governing authority.  If pious members of the legislative body want to pray, they can surely pray on their own at home, in their car, in their house of worship, or quietly in a meeting room or office before the meeting. 

The law, not faith, directs the work of any governing authority and how they do it.  That is, government acts according to laws, not according to religious faith.  Let a governing authority gather and pledge allegiance to the flag and affirm commitment to the law and public service.  But to gather in the name of God – be it Jesus Christ or Allah or a generic Divine Majesty – only serves to confuse the nature of the gathering and obscure the legal authority that governs its work.  (I also find these prayers and the use of the Bible in legal oaths to be insulting to my faith and church, misuses of holy things intended for the faithful, about which I wrote here and here.)

Second, no one is restricting Councilman Turner’s speech (and no one is restricting Reverend Turner’s speech, either).  He is free to pray and preach and teach however he likes at his church, in his home, on the street corner, in any number of places.  However, when he is acting in his capacity as an elected officer of the City of Fredericksburg, and particularly when he is in the legislative session of that Council, he no longer has free speech.  At that moment in that place, he is an officer of the government.  As an elected office holder exercising the authority and power of the office, he is bound by the legal constraints of the office and his duty to serve his constituents.  Just as I can’t shout FIRE! in a crowded theater – such speech is not protected – neither do I think that religious speech in a legislative session of a governing authority should be protected.

Last month I held public office for one day as I served as an election officer in the general election.  In my capacity as an election officer there were plenty of "dos" and "don’ts."    I was not allowed to engage in partisan political speech or to behave in anyway that might sway someone’s vote, even though I had definite opinions and perspectives regarding the election and otherwise had the right to speak these opinions as a citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  My role, as a public servant in this public office, was to serve in a particular capacity.  I freely gave up some of my freedom of expression that day so that I could serve my neighbor and contribute to the good functioning of democracy.

So too for elected public office holders.  They have been elected for a particular task – that of governing certain aspects of our community’s life.  Other freedoms – including speech – that are not related to the task of governing have no place in the official acts of a public official when acting in that capacity.

Religion and religious speech is at its best when it is free from government meddling and interference.  I hope, pray and advocate for a time when God-language is not a compulsory part of our legal system, currency, Pledge, or national motto.  We are a nation of laws, after all, not of men nor of religious belief.  Let the people of this nation, in their Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms, attribute these freedoms to God if they wish.  But let this be the private and free expression of the people, not the established and official speech of their government.

– – – – –

Another worry I have is the nature of this God the government is promoting.  Despite Councilman Turner’s attempts to pray in the name of Jesus, the government’s God is incredibly generic.  The courts have increasingly allowed non-sectarian prayers to God in schools and legislatures as long as the prayers don’t reference doctrines or names of God specific to particular religious groups. 

And so from the lips of government power brokers this God of Country is proclaimed, a God that loves freedom and democracy – and market economies? – and which loyally stands at the side of our government.  It is a God that nary challenges the Powers-That-Be, much unlike the God active in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, the martyrs, or advocates of social change over the centuries.  No, this is the God of Guantanamo and Abu-Ghraib, and if belief in this God of Country gains currency in our society it poses a significant threat to the teachings of our churches and the consciouses of our citizens. 

More on this in a future post.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Church/State, Faith & the Church, Politics, Society, Vocation. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Christian Prayers in Government Chambers: Music to the Devil’s Ears

  1. LP says:

    This summer I was invited to open the meeting of our city council in prayer. I accepted. Just prior to the beginning, I was told that a member of a minority religious group in the city had threatened to sue if the name Jesus was ever mentioned again. Thus, I was asked just minutes before to pray a generic prayer.
    I have to tell you, it felt odd and restrained. As a Lutheran pastor, people already had a good idea who I was talking to, regardless of the tagline that ended my prayer. The whole charade seemed silly.
    My feeling is this: if you are going to ask clergy and their counterparts in other faith traditions to open in prayer, let them do it in accordance with their own tradition, or don’t allow it at all. I don’t like the squishy feeling of generic civil religion.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good post, LZ, Good comment, LP. I don’t like wishy washy prayers, it is like not standing up for your faith.
    One of my objections to insisting on Christian prayer in public places, ie schools, is that if we allow Christian prayers then we MUST allow satanic prayers, etc.

  3. Eric says:

    As an agnostic and practicing Buddhist, this post gives me hope. Thanks very much for this.

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