I beg to differ – not for reasons of constitutional law, but for reasons of prayer.
Monday our local paper criticized the Pittsylvania County Supervisors for offering specifically Christian prayer to open their meetings, saying that this violates the First Amendment’s Establishment clause. Their suggested solution: “nondenominational invocations seeking the blessing of a generalized Almighty.”
One small problem: there is no such thing as a “generalized Almighty.” Voicing prayer to a made up deity renders the whole exercise a caricature, and takes the name of the Lord in vain.
I also beg to differ with one of the Supervisors in Pittsylvania, again, not for reasons of constitutional law, but for reasons of prayer. He reportedly justified his prayer by saying, “I want to take a stand for Jesus.”
Fine. Take a stand for Jesus. I’ll stand with you. But don’t co-opt prayer to do it. Talking with God is not about “taking a stand.” However well intentioned, that takes the name of the Lord in vain.
To avoid establishing one religion over another, we need neither to fabricate some lowest common denominator deity, nor to co-opt prayer for taking a stand. We can simply allow people of various faiths to voice prayer as they really do, and let it be as it really is, prayer in their own voices. Boards who open with prayer can show respect and courtesy by inviting people of various faiths to pray – Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or Christian.
And for the Christians who pray in such settings, if we’re to serve Jesus well, we should not just invoke his name, but signify his character by offering prayers that reflect his kind of humility and love – for all present.
As one who has offered prayers in such public settings, here’s what I’ve tried:
- I begin with words that can gather a variety of people into addressing God, something like “Almighty God, we’re a people of many beliefs, and it is my privilege to lead as we ask your blessing.”
- Then I move to thanking God for the many blessings we have in common as Americans, such as freedom, a bountiful land, etc.
- Then I ask blessings for all public servants, and specifically ask for wisdom for those who must make difficult decisions in this meeting. Obviously there are many other petitions that could be offered, but the occasion welcomes such focus, and brevity enables people to engage.
- Such a prayer can gather the sentiments of almost anyone present. But as a Christian, I must offer this prayer in the way the scripture directs, in Jesus’ name. And to make it plain that I do so as one praying, and not as one proving a point, I say something like, “Lord, you see that we’re a people of many beliefs, and that we pray in many ways. But in behalf of all, I pray as I know best, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
If the courts disallow such prayer, then it’s best not to pray in such settings – just to pray all the harder for the courts!