By Barry Kimbrough
It seems that conflict over prayer in the public square is always in the news. In the latest episode, U.S. House chaplain, Fr. Pat Conroy, questioned in his November 6 Congressional prayer whether Americans would be winners or losers under the new tax laws, House Speaker Paul Ryan, through one of his staff members, asked him to resign. The prayer was perceived by some to be critical of the GOP tax bill, inappropriate due to the expectation that government chaplains are supposed to be non-partisan. The chaplain resigned. Some believe his dismissal was due to other reasons, but a week later on May 3, 2018, after extensive bipartisan protests, he rescinded his resignation and was given his job back.1
A kerfuffle erupted between Liberty University president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Shaine Claiborne, leader of Red Letter Revival, a progressive evangelical group, when Claiborne wrote an open letter via Twitter to Falwell, asking if the two could pray together after a justice rally that the group would host at the Lynchburg, Virginia campus. He also invited the Liberty president to attend the event. Instead of a welcome and a promise to visit and pray with him, Claiborne got a reply from the University police department, citing Virginia Code, forbidding him to step foot on the campus or to visit the Thomas Road Baptist Church. More than one observer has registered concerns that it appeared Claiborne was attempting to weaponize prayer by backing Falwell into a corner with a public request for the meeting, and by planning to use the time of prayer to preach at Falwell. These posts include those who support Claiborne’s movement but were uncomfortable with his methods in this case.2
There are many other examples of controversial prayer. Some high schools have decided to ban graduation prayers because individuals chosen to pray appeared to be promoting one religion over another.3 City council meetings with long traditions of invocations have wrestled with the issue, some opting to continue the practice and others choosing to discontinue or replace the prayer with a moment of silence.4
In 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that city council and other public boards are free to include prayers in their meetings. “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), “government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be non-sectarian.” Unacceptable prayers, according to Kennedy, are those that “denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.”5
For Christians, an unintended consequence of this freedom to pray has come in the form of a growing number of requests by Satanist groups to be allowed to offer prayers before city meetings. Permission was granted to Michelle Shortt of the Satanic Temple of Tuscon, Arizona to do the invocation at a July 2016 council meeting in Scottsdale. Controversy over this decision led the city to cancel Shortt’s participation under the pretext that the city would only allow prayers from groups that had substantial ties to the town. In response, the Satanic Temple filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that the local governing body was standing in violation of their constitutional rights to free speech.6
At a Pensacola, Florida city council meeting in 2016, loud protests were heard attempting to drown out the opening prayer of David Suhor, co-founder of the local chapter of the Satanic Temple. Catholic and Protestant attendees prayed the Lord’s Prayer while Suhor prayed, but he tried to have the last word as he concluded with “Hail Satan.”7
Have Christians misused public prayer?
All this fight over prayer should give Christians pause for thought. Have we misused public prayer in our zeal to bring America back to God by using it as an opportunity to preach to a captive audience? Whether intended or not, many have viewed the forceful efforts of Christians to preserve public prayer as motivated by the desire to exploit it for purposes of proselytizing, promoting Christianity, or disparaging other religions.8
An important question for Christians is whether we pray in public according to Jesus’ principles. One of Jesus most well-known statements tells us how not to pray. We should not pray to show off our spirituality. “And when you pray,” said Jesus, “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” He reminded his hearers that such prayers do not bring a heavenly reward but an empty one: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Jesus advocated sincere, private prayer as the most effective: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5, 6, NIV).
Jesus taught that sometimes we should say nothing openly about Him. When He healed a leper, He told him to keep the matter to himself. Instead of proclaiming it abroad, he was to show his healed body to the priest.9 Practical stuff here for 21st-century believers. First, there are times when it does not help the cause of Christianity to go public with our religion because of prejudice and potential kickback that will create roadblocks to further progress. We need to be sensitive to the atmosphere and judge when the time is right to speak. This raises the question whether billboards or public prayers that aim to attack people because they believe or act differently than we do reflect the character and methods of Jesus.
The other lesson is embodied apologetic. When the man went to the priest to report his healing, the argument was in his bodily change. No sermon or prayer was needed. Unbelievers will usually reject what we say, but they will always believe what we do. Atheist Friedrich Nietzsche is reported to have said, “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.”10
Scripture records 650 prayers. They include confession, intercession, praise, thanksgiving, national protection, and blessings on government leaders. But none of these examples suggest we should force these prayers on people who don’t want to hear them.
Public prayers can be good, but not when used as a weapon. Instead, when asked, we can pray publicly — humbly and sincerely, from hearts changed by God’s grace. These are the prayers that God rewards.
Barry Kimbrough is a pastor in the Mountain View Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
1 https://www.ncronline.org/news/politics/paul-ryan-forces-out-jesuit-house-chaplain (accessed 5-1-18)
2 https://thewayofimprovement.com/2018/04/05/falwell-jr-to-the-red-letter-christians-dont-pray-on-our-campus/ (accessed 5-3-18); https://relevantmagazine.com/current/shane-claiborne-says-liberty-u-threatened-arrested-asking-falwell-campus-prayer-vigil/ (accessed 5-3-18)
3 http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2016/06/02/controversial-debate-prompts-area-high-school-to-drop-prayer-from-graduation/ (accessed 4-20-18)
4 http://www.religioustolerance.org/sep_c_st4.htm (accessed 4-20-18); https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Wilmington-City-Council-Prayer-Meetings-413748853.html (accessed 4-20-18); http://www.newsobserver.com/living/religion/article192661684.html (accessed 4-20-18)
5 http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-supreme-court-prayers-approved-city-councils-20140505-story.html (accessed 4-20-18)
6 http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/02/27/satanic-temple-sues-arizona-city-to-lead-city-council-prayer.html (accessed 4-20-18)
7 https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/christians-interrupt-satanic-prayer-in-city-council-meeting (accessed 4-20-18)
https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-iry-fullyhosted_003&hsimp=yhs-fullyhosted_003&hspart=iry&p=CHRISTIANS+INTERRUPT+SATANIC+PRAYER+IN+CITY+COUNCIL+MEETING#id=3&vid=a13b8e603f97a09bc11586405f92865e&action=click (accessed 5-1-18)
8 http://www.religioustolerance.org/sep_c_st4.htm (accessed 4-20-18)
9 Matthew 8:3, 4
10 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/586161-i-might-believe-in-the-redeemer-if-his-followers-looked (accessed 5-1-18)
11 intercession and requests (Philippians 4:6); confession and repentance (Psalm 51); praise (Psalm 150); national protection (2 Chronicles 20:5-12); government leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
Photo: Fr. Pat Conroy, S.J. Visits Canterbury – cburypix – Creative Commons