By James Coffin
On November 6, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Greece v. Galloway, which tested the constitutionality of prayer as a component of government meetings.
Is such prayer a violation of the nonestablishment clause of the First Amendment? Will prayers have to remain nonsectarian, as has been mandated for the past 30 years by Marsh v. Chambers (1983)? Does nonsectarian prayer preclude praying in Jesus’ name? These are issues with which the court will wrestle.
But the justices won’t be wrestling in a vacuum. The Obama administration is defending legislative prayer. Eighty-five members of the U.S. House of Representatives have filed a brief defending it. As have 34 members of the U.S. Senate. And 23 state attorneys general, including Florida’s. Brevard County has filed a brief.
It’s a hot-button issue.
Whatever the justices decide concerning legislative prayer, their decision will have little impact on what I’ll do when, as a member of the Christian clergy, I’m asked to pray at such gatherings.
I don’t wear one of those WWJD? wristbands. But I regularly ask the what-would-Jesus-do question. And I’m convinced about what he’d do regarding legislative prayer.
You see, as I read the story of Jesus, I note that his responses were often the opposite of what was expected: He openly hung out with unsavory types. He wasn’t big on religious rituals. He broke a few rules.
When an adulterous woman – worthy of death, according to Moses – was dragged before Jesus for judgment, he didn’t bad-mouth Moses. But neither did he apply Moses’ law.
And he talked positively about King David’s having eaten consecrated bread from the sanctuary – because of human need – even though that, too, was forbidden.
Jesus seems to have taken seriously King Solomon’s declaration in Ecclesiastes 3 that there’s a time for everything: What’s totally right for one situation may be totally wrong for another, and vice versa.
Jesus advocated what we now call the golden rule: Ask yourself how you’d want to be treated; then treat others that way. He said all spiritual obligation is summed up in this simple principle.
In fact, granted what Jesus said about the golden rule, I’m baffled by the tenacity with which we Christians demand the right to pray in Jesus’ name when interacting with non-Christians.
Oh, I know Jesus said we should pray to the Father in his name. But have you noticed that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we don’t tack on: “All these things we ask in Jesus’ name”? Why not? Why flexibility only sometimes?
If Christians were in the minority, would we want prayers at government-organized, tax-funded events to be directed to the majority religion’s God? How do American Christians feel about nations where the government is the enforcement arm for the majority religion?
And what about agnostics and atheists? Do their feelings count for nothing? Or might concern for their feelings be the epitome of living out the golden rule? I think it would be.
So, irrespective of the court’s decision, when I’m in Christian settings, I’ll unreservedly pray Christian prayers – in Jesus’ name.
In multifaith settings, I’ll pray theistic prayers that aren’t deity-specific, seeking through my words to inspire and unify all while excluding none.
And in government-organized, tax-funded settings where there are Christians, those of other faith traditions and nonbelievers, I won’t invoke or allude to deity. And I’ll call my words a “reflection” rather than a prayer.
I’ll remind my listeners of crucial values we all share. I’ll focus on the spirit we all hope will prevail. I’ll point to the broad goals we all want to see achieved. And I’ll seek to ensure that my words remind us of heartfelt sentiments that are equally shared by believers and nonbelievers alike.
I’ll do it that way not because of court rulings. Or to be politically correct. But because I view living in such a relationship with all humanity to be the ultimate practical obligation of my Christian faith.
[box]James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. A version of this article originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on November 5, 2013.
Materials from the Supreme Court case Town of Greece v. Galloway are available at the SCOTUSblog including briefs, recording and of oral arguments, etc.[/box]