At my mother’s funeral in our little Methodist church, I remember looking over and seeing one of her dear friends, a kind, funny, and generous Jewish lady. In one of those odd, random thoughts you have in those kinds of circumstances, I remember thinking how nice it was for her to come, to sit quietly and participate in a house of worship not her own, remembering and honoring my mother.
Nearly all of us have been to a funeral in a church setting not our own. Within that setting, all of us have heard prayers or messages from a pulpit with which we disagreed. Things which made us feel ever so slightly uncomfortable. But in that setting, we did not get up and storm out, or feel the need to challenge what we were hearing. Our purpose was honoring someone we cared about, in the place and in the way which would have been meaningful to them. We had chosen to be there.
That sense of unease, the feeling that it would be impolite or disruptive to stand up and walk out, to object or not participate, is what lies behind the objection to government sponsored prayer. It’s one of the few narrow, important places carved out by our Constitution, wherein the majority does not and cannot rule. Not because the religious journey is wrong or bad, but because it’s far too important to be sullied by the inevitably corrupting taint of government. A faith promoted and bolstered by government is, at best, vapid and ultimately meaningless. It has largely become so in European nations, where the church is but one agency of the state; where cathedrals lie empty, and religious exercise is the exception rather than the rule. At worst, it accords divine sanction to the most awful excesses of oppressive, authoritarian rule, as we see not just in today’s theocratic nations of Iran and Saudi Arabia, but throughout history. Even Christian history, however uncomfortable it may be to admit that truth.
The separation of church and state is not to protect the state, but to protect what is good and holy about religion – about the individual journey following that internal divine spark – from the state.
Myrtle Beach Council is to be commended at least for good intentions, for a desire to be inclusive in the prayer offered at the start of each council meeting. Unfortunately, if they’d checked any of the other hundreds of times this has been attempted, they might have understood that it was doomed to failure. There is no way to make a government sponsored invocation inclusive enough to encompass everyone, without making that invocation so vacuous, bland, and muddy as to be meaningless. In fact, if they’d checked, they’d have discovered that attempting to craft such a prayer is the exact endorsement prohibited by the First Amendment, because they’re giving a governmental stamp of approval to a precise set of words and theology. As Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion for Lee v. Weisman, “It is a cornerstone principle of our Establishment Clause jurisprudence that it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government...”
But there is also this. The members of council, their staff, and every attendee to those meetings are also each individual citizens of the United States. Hand in hand with their right to be free of the soft coercion of governmental prayer is their inalienable, sacred right to free exercise of their individual faith. For some people, an appreciation for corporate prayer is part of that exercise. As elected officials of government, they may not direct prayer in an official setting, but that is not the same as saying they may not, as individual citizens, participate in whatever expression of faith is meaningful to them – up to and including corporate prayer.
The dilemma only becomes unsolvable when it becomes a competition, a zero sum game. It’s when the underlying motivation isn’t a desire to craft a solution protecting the rights of all people, but a desire to force society to conform to what we prefer. It’s the frankly dumb conflict between a push which says there must be praying, and the pushback which says there must be no praying.
What is the purpose of corporate prayer? At its very best, it is group submission to words offered by one person. Those words can wrest us from our baser natures, remind us of our place in eternity, of our duty to our creator and our community, of the ways we are to work for good. They make use of our common beliefs, our shared religious history – where we’ve come from – to focus us on threading our way toward the future within a framework of goodness and nobility, honesty and humility. Ultimately, it can serve to at least dampen the ego and self-interest we all have, and remind us that we are less important individually than our neighbors, than the whole. It unites.
Nearly all of those true benefits are lost when the submission to that prayer is not voluntary, but coerced. Instead of helping facilitate cohesion and unified purpose, it automatically sets up barriers, reminders of the ways some of us are not all the same, do not have a uniform set of beliefs. It’s the same kind of nagging discomfort we’ve all felt at those funerals in unfamiliar worship settings. But this time, it’s not a discomfort we volunteer for graciously out of love and respect, but a discomfort foisted upon us by the government which is supposed to represent all of us. It cannot help but seem, sometimes, much less about a desire to pray than about a desire to be seen praying. Rather than uniting, it divides.
There are any number of approaches to the current conflict at Myrtle Beach Council aside from the one chosen, which is almost guaranteed to continue the conflict and may ultimately involve expensive, divisive litigation. Council can opt, perhaps, for a simple moment of silence rather than a specific set of words. For those who truly desire and feel they benefit from corporate prayer, there is time before the official start of the meeting. They can, outside of their official capacity, voluntarily meet 15 or so minutes earlier, have whatever kind of prayer they like as individual American citizens, and then, after a few minutes for those to arrive who do not wish to participate, officially open the meeting. If that creates logistical problems with noise during what is a solemn moment, they can find a place, as happens in public schools, to “rally around the flagpole.” To find a place just outside of council chambers before the meeting, where those who desire to participate can gather, individually and voluntarily, to invoke divine guidance and help for the work just ahead.
It truly isn’t that difficult. It just requires the very thing that corporate prayer itself ideally sponsors – a diminishment of ego, a sublimation of the desire to “rule” over others. A recognition that both sides have valid points, and both sides are comprised of people who are individual Americans with constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom. In that context, the right to pray or not, as one desires, and the right not to be forced to submit to prayers with which one disagrees, are flip sides of the exact same coin.
Council has an opportunity to begin what might become a beautiful tradition in real free exercise of religious liberty. They might find, in fact, that in a voluntary gathering of free people, prayer can actually mean something rare and profound. Or they can continue to tweak at the edges, making the words offered increasingly amorphous and ambiguous, in order to offend no one – ultimately offending everyone, and inspiring nothing.
Fry is a frequent contributor to The Sun News Opinion Blog, at thesunnews.typepad.com/opinionblog.