Public prayers on state occasions need not be divisive or generic

Sunday, February 11, 2001

The debate over the prayers offered at President Bush's inauguration is yet another reminder of just how diverse and contentious America has become in the 21st century.

Prayers at inaugural ceremonies are nothing new, of course. The practice dates back to the day George Washington took the oath of office. And the Supreme Court has indicated that a prayer on such occasions is constitutional.

But we've just been through a long and bitter campaign full of charges and counter-charges about the influence of the “religious right” on George W. Bush. Now that the election is finally over, every symbolic gesture by the new president is scrutinized for possible hidden messages and motives.

Why did these particular prayers spark debate? Because both ministers chosen to pray were evangelical Protestants, and both prayed in the name of Jesus Christ.

One writer criticized the prayers as “divisive, sectarian and inappropriate.” Other commentators complained that millions of Americans were made to feel like “outsiders” at an official event.

On the other side of the argument are those who say that it is completely appropriate for the president to select clergy who share his faith. Besides, they point out, his inaugural address stressed unity and struck a note of inclusiveness by mentioning “churches, synagogues and mosques” as examples of faith communities working for the common good.

As this debate reveals, finding the “right” prayer for these occasions is a difficult, if not hopeless, task.

Some people propose general, non-sectarian prayers (common at many public events these days). While this approach has the advantage of being most inclusive, it still leaves out the growing number of Americans with no religious preference.

Moreover, many people of faith disparage generic prayers as meaningless addresses “to whom it may concern.” In many religious traditions, how you pray and in whose name you pray determine whether or not the prayer is authentic and meaningful.

Since it's difficult to imagine any newly-elected president eliminating the tradition of opening and closing the inauguration with prayer, is there a way to pray that is genuine and yet somehow speaks to our nation's expanding diversity?

At the risk of making all sides mad, let me weigh in with two modest suggestions for public prayer at important state events.

First, why not consider the alternative offered by a number of religious leaders such as Bishop Krister Stendahl, former head of Harvard Divinity School, and Elder Dallin Oaks of the Mormon Church? They accept invitations to pray at public events on the condition that they be allowed to pray in ways that are authentic within their respective traditions. But they are careful to say “I,” not “we” (e.g., “I pray in the name of Jesus.”)

I prefer this approach because it protects the integrity of religious traditions without assuming that we all share the same faith.

Second, it would be a civil and inclusive gesture for those leading the prayers — as well as for an incoming president — to acknowledge that we are a nation of many peoples and faiths.

It might be enough to simply say that although we have different beliefs (and prayers), under the First Amendment we share a commitment to uphold the right of every citizen to choose in matters of faith.

If there's going to be a religious message at inaugurations, let it be authentic. And let it be accompanied by a religious-liberty message reminding America that there are no “official prayers” in the land of the free.