In the Fight for Public Prayer, Prayer Suffers

By James L. Evans 

When I was about fourteen, I remember seeing two boys fighting over one girl.  It was like something out of an animated cartoon.  One boy had her by one hand, while the other boy held the other.  They were pulling her back and forth, yelling at each other the whole time.  The poor girl was caught in the middle when fists started flying.  Before it was over, she was smacked right on the cheek by one of her misguided young lovers.  The next day she was sporting a huge “shiner,” having proof that she was loved.  A dubious honor, to say the least.

I recalled this incident while thinking about America’s ongoing struggle with public prayer.  Holding on to one hand are devout Christians trying to pull prayer into public life.  Their belief is that prayer changes things.  They also believe that it is the absence of prayer in public life that has contributed to many of our nation’s woes.  Prayer in public, they say, will turn us back to God, and save us from oblivion.

Tugging on the other arm is the ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union).  These folks believe that church and state should be separate.  The Constitution, they say mandates a secular state which neither favors, nor hinders, any religion.  Prayer spoken aloud in public places, such as football games, school classrooms, and courtrooms, violates the separation of church and state by promoting religion.

If we listen closely we can hear them arguing.

“But the way I choose to express my religion,” the faithful Christian says, “is by voicing a prayer over the loudspeaker.  Prayer may help some person find God while at the game.  I resent being told when and where I can pray.  It makes me want to pray just to show those liberal federal judges that they can’t tell me what to do.  Besides, we’ve always started the game with prayer.”

“The Constitution does not allow you to express your religion in that way.”  The ACLU replies.  “Suppose a practitioner of Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism wanted to pray.  Wouldn’t you feel offended?  It is best to restrict religious practices to places and time specifically set aside for them.  That is clearly what the Constitution calls for.”

“Well maybe we should take a second look at that Constitution,” the faithful Christian says.  “I know that some founding fathers were very religious.”

“And some of them weren’t,” the ACLU replies.  “That’s the point.  In a nation as diverse as ours, we cannot run the risk of endorsing one religion over another.”

“You liberals have ruined this country!”

“It’s your constitutional right to call me names, you redneck.”

And so the debated drags on.

Sincere people who pray are only interested in cultivating genuine prayer.  Unfortunately, as powerful forces struggle over the idea of public prayer, very little light is shed on the nature and purpose of prayer.  This is because the whole notion of public prayer is built on serious misconceptions about prayer.  These misconceptions cloud the minds of even the most disciplined practitioners of prayer.  As the fight over public prayer rages, the only certain result is that prayer itself suffers.

Here are a few of the more obvious misconceptions.

Prayer As Ceremony.

When prayer is tacked on to the beginning of something, like a sporting event or public gathering, we reduce it to mere ceremony.  It’s like using prayer as a starting gun for a race.  Using prayer as a ceremonial beginning turns it into a minor appendage to something else that is the main event.

Prayer is not something we use to get something else started.  Prayer is something all on its own.  In fact, prayer is far too important to be reduced to the status of mere prelude.

Prayer As Preaching.

Some people believe that praying for people, and allowing them to hear the prayers on their behalf, has the power to change lives.  Both praying for people and changing lives are noble ideas.  However, we may be confusing how these two events are connected to each other.

Praying for people is a good idea.  But prayer is addressed to God.  Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1 NRSV).  Besides, there is a biblically mandated method designed to help people hear about God’s love and have an opportunity to change their lives.   The method is called “preaching,” and it has enjoyed over two thousand years of success.

Common sense should tell us that if we try to turn prayers into sermons, they won’t be prayers anymore.

Prayer As Protest.

No one likes to be told what to do, or not to do.  Most of us are just stubborn enough that if someone in authority tells us we can’t pray in public, we will be tempted to pray in public just for spite.  Apart from flouting the law, this attitude also does irreparable harm to prayer.  If we use prayer to express dissatisfaction, or as a way of venting anger and frustration, we are a million miles away from a genuine attitude of prayer.

Prayer is not a method of protest.  The themes of prayer are thanksgiving and praise. Prayer is also a time for compassion and concern.  Prayer is for seeking guidance and direction.  But nowhere is it written that prayer is for thumbing our noses at authority.

Prayer As Generic.

Some people are so determined to find a way to pray in public that they are willing to empty prayer of any theological content.  These are the people who are willing to pray prayers that do not address any God in particular, but just mention God in general.

I’m sorry, but that is not prayer.

Prayer is by definition theologically specific.  Genuine prayer always reflects specific ideas about God.  We pray because we believe God is listening.  That is a specific theological idea.  We also pray because we believe that God is personal.  That too is a specific theological idea.  The same is true for believing in God’s grace, mercy, and love – not to mention omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.

Prayer is not generic.  The specific content of our beliefs about God is what makes prayer meaningful.  It is content specific or it is not prayer.  This is why it is impossible to compose a prayer that can take in the vast theological diversity which makes up this nation.

If we start composing nonspecific prayers, empty of content, and addressed to no God in particular, we might as well be talking to the wind.

Prayer As Symbol.

People who pray may not realize it, but it is what prayer stands for that is really driving the whole public prayer movement.  The truly religious person knows that prayer is communion with God.  Prayer is the portal through which we cross into the divine Presence.

Intuitively, we know that in the Presence of God, things are different.  In the Presence of God, there is no chaos, no death, no evil, no sorrow, no hunger, no disappointment, no confusion.  Everything in God’s Presence is bliss, peace, and goodness.  In other words, everything our world is not.

More than anything, we want our world different.  We want it healed and whole.  And since prayer symbolizes this hope for so many people, its presence at football games, in school classrooms, and in courtrooms is a way of asserting that hope.

But prayer as symbolic action is not prayer.  It is not in seeing prayer done, or in hearing prayer prayed that the benefit occurs.  Prayer is only prayer when we open our hearts and minds to God, as we understand God.  Only as we pour out our hearts in search of communion, and in voluntary contrition, will we learn to pray.  Only when our words are filled with thanksgiving and intercession will we truly accomplish prayer.

Which leaves us with one final misconception about prayer.

Prayer As Right.

The battle in the courts may leave the impression that it is up to the state whether or not we can pray.  It’s almost as if we believe that government confers or denies the right to pray.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Prayer is not a right we must beg from government.  God gives us prayer as a gift.  It is God’s way of establishing communication between us and our Creator.  So long as God is listening, there will be prayer.

As over zealous opponents slug it out for the right to define the who, what, when, where, and how of prayer, it is inevitable that prayer will catch some blows.  We do not honor prayer by bruising it.

However, if we who are really interested in praying will hear the words of Jesus on this subject, the fight will be over, and prayer will have won.

Jesus said, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6 NRSV).

James Evans is pastor of First Baptist Church in Montevallo, Alabama. This article was first published in a pamphlet by the Church State Council of Seventh-day Adventists.  Republished with permission.

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