The Maryland State Senate recently barred a Christian pastor from delivering a prayer to open the legislative session for the day. His offense? His prayer would have closed with the words “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Two Jewish senators had threatened to boycott the legislative session if the prayer were allowed. The three other clergymen who had previously said prayers at the invitation of the same senator were all Jewish rabbis.
Most Christians will immediately recognize in this story the double standard that is now being applied at all levels of government to Christian and non-Christian expressions of faith. We all have to live by the most exacting standard of tolerance when non-Christian expression is involved. Christian expression, on the other hand, is often deemed an establishment of religion. This inconsistent treatment is clearly unfair and needs to be rooted out. But the Maryland incident brings up some questions about the role of religion in legislative bodies that I think we need to address.
- Is it acceptable to open a legislative session with prayer?
- If it is acceptable, how should the prayer leaders be chosen?
- What, if any, restrictions should be placed on the prayers to avoid offending any members of the legislature?
In proposing that sessions of the Constitutional Convention open with prayer, even the deist Benjamin Franklin had this to say: “Have we now forgotten that powerful friend, or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” I think Franklin’s credentials as a champion of liberty are strong evidence that opening legislative sessions with prayer is an acceptable degree of mixing church and state.
The other two questions are more difficult. Most legislatures allow members to nominate clergy to lead prayers. This has led to situations where even witches have been allowed their turn. The only content restrictions I have heard of have involved cases like the Maryland Senate, in which explicitly Christian prayer has been prohibited.
Our culture has become too religiously divided to support the practice of rotating among clergy of different faiths. Neither this nor any other method is going to result in prayers that are acceptable to all members. I say this from a Christian as much as a civil libertarian perspective.
As a Lutheran Christian, I would object to praying with Muslims or Hebrews, since we don’t have the same idea of whom we are approaching in prayer. Many others who are serious about their faith, including those Muslims and Hebrews, should feel the same way about praying with Christians. Mixed prayers like this imply a unity that doesn’t and can never exist.
Thus, in any religiously mixed legislative body I think it is time to give up the practice of general prayer. Instead, I think legislators should break up into caucuses as the first activity each morning for the purpose of prayer. Each group of co-religionists could gather in close enough groups to hear each other without microphones and amplifiers. This would allow people to split up any way they see fit. Even among the Christians there might be several different groups. Those who didn’t want to belong to a prayer caucus could go get a cup of coffee.
This system would recognize the importance of God’s guidance for legislative deliberations. It would show respect for the diversity of religious opinion without implying an impossible degree of unity.