Why do we pray? More importantly, why do we pray in public? The Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a case involving the town of Greece, New York. The city council starts each meeting with a prayer. For most of its history, the prayer has been of Christian origin asking, beseeching the Lord Jesus Christ to do one thing or another. If not Jesus, they invoked the name of His Father. When objections were inevitably registered, the town tried to cover its collective posteriors by inviting a Wiccan, Moslem and Jewish representative to lead a prayer. (sounds like the start of bad joke doesn't it?)
The court has ruled in the past on prayer in front of civic bodies or legislatures saying since this has been a tradition deeply buried in the American culture, it's acceptable. The ruling makes no sense nor does the practice of the prayers.
Why do we pray to open Congress or state legislatures or city councils? What is the hope? What will it accomplish? Why do we pray at high school football games or at public school graduations? Why are prayers offered at the start of a NASCAR race? Who decides? Is this one of those things the majority get to control? If I'm an atheist, what am I supposed to think when my representatives open their meeting with a prayer? (remember, the purpose of the bill of rights was to protect the minority from the majority by creating certain rights which cannot be voted away)
Anyone reading this knows the answer to all of the above questions. The tradition of public prayer at public gatherings was promulgated as a way to proselytize for particular religious views. (at one time it could only be Protestant prayers, as God didn't listen to Catholics) By offering a prayer to God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the powers-that-be were letting everyone know they believed in God...acknowledged Jesus as Her Son and God...believed in the Trinity...believed in the Christian God and not Allah or Yahweh...believed the Christian God was a part of civic religion to which you must adhere if you want to be a part of the community. The public prayer is proof we are a Christian nation...a shining City on a hill...a special people blessed by God...(the whole concept of Manifest Destiny was the belief God wanted all of North America to belong to the white Christians who occupy it). The public prayer is intended to pump wind into the Christian sails and deflate all others.
How do I know this? First, the Supreme Court's own ruling acknowledges this truth. They ruled opening Congressional sessions with a prayer was constitutional because it's a tradition. What? Because Christians have dominated government for most of the nation's history...this despite Jefferson's claim organized religion had ruined Jesus' message...Madison compared organized religion to a dung hill and the called the clergy indolent and lazy...Jefferson and Madison wrote legislation to disestablish religion from the state in the colony of Virginia (from which we get the longest word we knew as children--antidisestablishmentarianism--simply meaning someone who opposed Jefferson and Madison's idea), the public prayers which were offered were Christian prayers. Tradition should never be an excuse to trample constitutional rights. Second, the very same people who pushed Christian public prayer, fought hammer and tong to keep any other prayer out of the public square. Finally, public prayer is nothing more than "gimmee" prayer, the worst form of prayer. In public prayer, what do we do? We ask God to look down on this august body with favor. We plead with God to somehow make public officials like each other or cooperate with each other or work with each other...tolerate each other...be mindful of their civic duties...care about what is best for everyone...avoid petty partisan politics and more. Really? Does anyone think God is listening to the Greece, New York's city council when it prays they can get through their agenda for the night?
If all you did was constantly ask your best friend, spouse, or child for favor or help...if all you did was tell them your troubles...if the only time they heard from you was when you wanted something how long do you think they would still be around or would listen? Yet, this is the nature of all public prayer.
Prayer is communication with God or nature or goddesses or whatever. Prayer only makes sense if there is a relationship between two entities. There cannot be a relationship unless one is willing to listen and not just talk. Silence, contemplation, meditation and quiet are all part of a good prayer life. Prayer is meant to be intimate and personal. Jesus says when you pray do so in a closet where no one else can see or hear you. Yes, we pray in church, but this action assumes it is an extension of the individual private prayer of each person in attendance.
If we are honest, the real reason for public prayer is "triumphalism". It is showing off. It is proof we are a Christian nation, founded on Christian values, blessed by the Christian god and proof Christianity is the one, true religion. Every other religion is second rate and atheism is anathema. You want proof? Imagine what would happen if President Obama did not end a national address by saying, "...God bless you and God bless America." He would be excoriated as a non-believer, or closet Muslim or worse...an atheist.
Prayer is the most personal and intimate way we touch God and are touched. Prayer is where we open ourselves, our soul and are brutally honest about our faults and sins with God. Prayer can be painful and scary and it can come from deep canyons of loneliness, sadness, as well as from moments of transcendent joy. Prayer is about listening, not talking. It involves high emotions and the humility to be grateful for our blessings which we did not earn. Public prayer is none of these things and serves no other purpose except to advance the agenda of those who pick the prayer.
We should hope the Supreme Court finally ends this Pharisaical practice once and for all. Then each of us can pray in our own way and experience something I guarantee...if you pray consistently, humbly, quietly and listen intently, God will respond. Now go and celebrate that publically.