You are a pastor. Someone is in need of prayer. So they call on you, a pastor, to be the pray-er. They want you to pray with them, or for them, or both. The most frequent place for you to offer your pastoral prayers likely will be at a bedside. Other likely places, outside of a church building, will be parishioners’ living rooms and shared meal tables.
Some of the more unusual places where I have been the pray-er: outside a courtroom before an adoption was finalized, in a barn, and on a (literal) mountain top.
I say “yes” to being the pray-er in almost every situation.
I say “no” to being the pray-er at the start of a government meeting, school board meeting, or legislative session.
The United States Supreme Court has recently ruled that the First Amendment of the Constitution is not violated when a legislative session is opened by prayers.
That means that, at least for now, I can’t claim a valid legal reason for abstaining from public pastoral praying. Government requested prayer has been government blessed.
I will still say “no.” Here are some reasons:
- As a citizen and a pastor, I support the First Amendment intention that government refrain from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”
- In my pastoral role, I am all about the establishment of a religion. A request for me to be the designated pray-er is to request the specific presence of Jesus Christ in what I do and say. When I show up anywhere as “Reverend,” the religion of Christianity is established in that place, whether that is my intention or not.
- God is ever-present whether or not invoked in public spoken clergy-voiced prayer. Public servants can surely attend to their own prayer life and pre-meeting spiritual preparation.
- I can pray my own prayers (privately) any time, any place. And so can anyone else. Everyone else’s silent prayers will reach God as effectively as my voiced prayer would. That is, unless the actual prayer agenda is to publicly establish one religion — Christianity — over other religions.
- Voicing the public-square prayer would make me the only one openly and freely expressing my religion, even if my prayer was crafted to be inclusive and/or generic and not prayed “in Jesus’ name.” All others’ open and free expression of their religion is not invited, and freedom from religion is denied to those who who claim no faith or religion.
- I myself want to be free from religious indoctrination and rituals in the public square. I attend and participate in public meetings to receive information about issues and to influence elected officials to make decisions that benefit the common good.
- I will not actively participate in Christianity becoming the state-sanctioned religion. It’s not good for democracy, and it’s not good for the Church.
- I will continue to reject the opportunity to be the religious good luck charm du jour for lawmakers and public officials who want Jesus to bless their actions, too often actions of injustice and inequality.
- If enough of us Christian pastors refuse these invitations, religious professionals from other traditions might be invited. That would be an improvement. Or government-sanctioned prayers would be discontinued. That would be ideal.
I haven’t come up with a convincing reason to say “yes” to public-square prayer that would overcome the above reasons to say “no.”
Indeed, inspired by former judge James C. Nelson, I will no longer stand for government-sanctioned prayer. From now on, I will remain seated during public square prayers. Sitting down, I hope, will be an even more visible way to stand for religious freedom for all.
For more information about religious freedom, I recommend Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.