I was delighted several months ago when I received another invitation to open a session of the Maryland Senate in prayer. This time, however, there was an additional request – to submit my prayer ahead of time so that, I was told, it might be accurately published in their records.
Several days before my scheduled visit, I received a phone call from the Senate asking me to please remove my reference to Jesus Christ at the end of my prayer. I said respectfully, I could not, simply because that is the only way I knew how to pray.
The day before my visit, I received another phone call informing me that because I could not comply with Senate protocol, my invitation had been withdrawn. The person dealing with me was most gracious and seemed to me personally embarrassed by this turn of events. She did, however, have to enforce policy.
An experience like this makes you think long and hard about the place of faith in a pluralistic society.
I responded to the Senate indicating that I was most sympathetic to their concerns. Why should someone lead the assembly in prayer in the name of Jesus, when there are members of the Senate who do not believe in Jesus, and could not reasonably be led in that way? I would feel equally offended if I were led in prayer by a Muslim, with the expectation that I would be praying in the name of Allah.
In fact, it seems to me that the days when Americans can be led in any sort of public prayer are gone. Such prayers are bound to be offensive, either because they would be sectarian, or because they would have to be spiritually diluted to the consistency of melted Jell-O.
Which is why I never intended to lead the Senate in prayer. I intended to pray for them. Here, I think, is a way forward in re-forging the partnership between church and State intended by the First Amendment. The Founding Fathers rejected the establishment of any particular religion, and I think that does rule out publicly leading robust prayers from any religious tradition. But those same Fathers had no intention of isolating the government from the spiritual concerns and religious influence of its citizens.
I believe a proper partnership could be re-established by asking a community’s religious leaders to pray for the nation/state/public assemblies, rather than try to lead those entities in prayer. That is to say, let community religious leaders ask God’s blessing in any way they believe is right, praying with all the sensitivities and fervor of their faith. But let it be an “I/them” prayer, not a “We/us” prayer. Let the one praying ask God to bless, rather than try to lead the whole group in asking for God’s blessing.
That means that occasionally I will be blessed in the name of some other god. I would not participate in such a prayer, but I would not be offended by someone else’s faith. As long as different religious leaders were invited in approximate proportion to the respective numbers they locally represent (including meditations from atheists), there would be no favoritism shown to any religion. And the public would benefit from exposure to the spiritual sensitivities and world views of its citizens. Such prayers would not be the prayers of the group, but only the prayers of the religious leaders involved.
And when I, as a Christian pastor, pray, I would ask God to act in the name of Jesus Christ.
I have asked the Maryland Senate to reconsider its policies along these lines. It would enable us to celebrate religious integrity in a pluralistic society.