A Faithful Word Against Government-Sponsored Prayer

Jerry Harp
June 12, 2014
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The Supreme Court’s decision in “Town of Greece v. Galloway” allows government entities to continue beginning their proceedings with sectarian prayer. As a person of faith, I am troubled in spirit by this ruling not only because it violates our pluralist values, but also because it cheapens prayer.

St. Thomas Aquinas defined prayer as raising one’s heart and mind to God. There are many ways of doing this. One common misperception is that the only meaning of prayer is asking God to give us things. The issue of what prayer is and can be comes up with my students when we discuss, for example, George Herbert’s “Church Monuments” or Jorie Graham’s “Prayer.” One traditional form of prayer is indeed intercessory, in which one might ask God for an end to famine, ongoing conversion of life, or peace in the Middle East. At its most fundamental, this form of prayer leads me to recognize my utter contingency and opens me to the promptings of divine influence—for often the good that I ask for is the good that I need to do. However, some forms of intercessory prayer can leave the impression that the divine must have a poor memory, or might need prompting to perform some good that he otherwise would not think to do. I’ve even heard of some who, based on the idea that God wants them to have whatever goods they desire, will go to a dealership to lay hands on the car of their choosing—which is bad theology, poor taste, and rude public behavior. Nevertheless, intercessory prayer at its best arises from a deep intuition that it is good to be mindful of each other, as well as ourselves, in our creaturely neediness.

But there are also other kinds of prayer, such as thanksgiving and praise. Thomas Merton spoke of prayer as what happens when one quiets down. This is prayer of silent contemplation. As St. Augustine said in the Confessions, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. But then there are also perfectly legitimate noisy ways to pray, from speaking in tongues to high church liturgy, from chanting mantras to reciting sacred texts. These various forms of prayer, from the meditatively silent to the boisterously loud, are far cries from the few devotional words that precede a government gathering. Even when those prayers are done well, as sometimes they are, there often remains something perfunctory and banal about, like little advertisements for God before the real business begins.

I have no objection to prayer in public spaces per se. If my home Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, wanted to rent out the Moda Center, where the Trail Blazers play, so that the pope could come say Mass, it would surely be a grand occasion, though I imagine Pope Francis might suggest better ways of spending the money, such as on ministry to our homeless population.

Implicit in the values of our pluralist world are values important to my own religious tradition, which is Catholicism; one such value is the integrity of each person’s conscience and journey through the world. Even if the church has too often honored these values more in word than in deed, the values remain, as the Documents of Vatican II testify. The village we live in is global and plural, and whatever redemption we experience must be in dialogue with the many languages of value and belief encountered there, not in a cultural dispensation of an idealized past. This is one of the recurring themes of David Tracy, one of the profoundest theologians of the last few decades. I believe that my own prayer life must occur in the midst of pluralist dialogue as well. Muttering a few devotional words before a public gathering hardly matters except that, if it alienates atheists, agnostics, or believers in underrepresented faiths, it may well do harm.

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