December 2015 Church & State | Viewpoint

by The Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell 

Public prayers before meetings, ball games and assemblies are regarded by many Americans, including many Christians, as a routine part of the call to order: “OK, this is serious, let’s get down to business.” Not that big a deal. The right to pray at public gatherings in the language of a particular faith tradition, to the exclusion of other traditions, however, has become a contentious cultural flashpoint that takes up the time and resources of our elected bodies and our court system to an extraordinary extent.

Both attitudes are decidedly shallow.

Demanding the right to have sectarian prayer at publicly funded events is largely a signature contention of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. It makes me wonder, have they not read their Bibles? Maybe they should read them rather than brandish and thump them.

Matthew’s gospel quotes Jesus: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for you have no reward from your Father in heaven. When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so that they may be seen by others….But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”

That’s Jesus!

According to these passages from the Sermon on the Mount, those who claim the right to have exclusionary public prayer at governmental meetings and at public school functions understand neither prayer nor the God who is intended to hear them, at least as presented in their scriptures.

The God portrayed in scriptures is more than a Heavenly Overseer watching to see if “His” flag is run up the pole at every human endeavor. Further, prayer is not a perfunctory salute to a presumed cultural norm, nor is it a mere socially accepted method of getting events off to a good start.

Public prayer is a traditional part of the corporate worship of most religious faiths. It assumes the context of a community of worshipers who have a shared set of beliefs and understandings, persons who also practice prayer in private, “in secret,” as Jesus directed.

That is a far different reality from any city council meeting or football game or school assembly. That’s why so many praying, worshipping Jews, Muslims, Christians and other religious believers affirm the separation of church and state and the court rulings against prayer at governmental and publically funded events.

Public prayer in the language of any faith is particular, specific to the symbols of that faith, and in that sense it is exclusive. There have been attempts at creating generic prayers for public events, but such prayers are seen as anemic and vapid by seriously religious persons, not authentic prayer at all. Prayer is, for all these reasons, inappropriate in any public setting in a religiously diverse society, especially in any publically funded setting.

So, what do those who insist on public prayer in their own fashion really want? They clearly desire the official and general acknowledgement of the cultural dominance of their own particular religion. A newly elected legislator in the North Carolina legislature introduced a bill to exempt the state and its counties from the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. He cited the Tenth Amendment, which says that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution…are reserved to the States….” This, he contended, allowed for such an exemption and gave North Carolina the authority to vote to be a Christian state and his county to be a Christian county.

The bill died before it reached a committee of the legislature. But this attitude betrays the motive of many efforts to weaken the separation of church and state. Christian fundamentalists want cultural dominance for their religion and its views, and the attending right to sanction other religions. Anything less they view as denial of their religious freedom.

As wiser heads in the legislative leadership recognized, such a law is unconstitutional and would be struck down by the courts. What doesn’t seem to matter to these zealots, the very ones who extol cutting government spending, is the fact that it is wasting the time and money to contest these actions in the courts.

Beyond that, many just seem to “love to stand and pray…so that they may be seen by others.” That is clearly unbiblical: Jesus called such religious showboats hypocrites.

The separation of church and state is one of the cherished cornerstones of our constitutional government. It was intentionally set in place by the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, wise leaders who had seen quite enough of established religion and its abuses in Europe and in the colonies. It needs to be vigorously and continuously protected by all of us.


The Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell is past president of the Orange-Dur­ham, N.C., chapter of Am­eri­cans Uni­ted.