Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Be Ye Separate Part 1: Public Prayer

The culture wars are being fought over hot button socio-religious issues and some of those issues not only seem to be further distancing (in a negative way) Christians from society, but they are even dividing the Church itself.

I would like to start flushing out what I see as a new perspective that I'm gaining. It's new to me, but I don't pretend or claim it to be a new idea. This perspective has existed, in some form or fashion, almost over the entire life of the Church. But it's new or different in the sense that I don't hear other evangelicals holding or pronouncing this perspective.

In short, I'm starting to believe that the best thing for both the Church and society is for Christianity to be removed from the public (and by that I mean governmental, not societal) sphere. I hope explain why as this series (I don't know what else to call it) continues.

II Cor. 6:14-17 says:

14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? 15 And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For youb]" class="footnote">[b] are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“ I will dwell in them
And walk among them.
I will be their God,
And they shall be My people.”c]" class="footnote">[c]

17 Therefore

“ Come out from among them
And be separate, says the Lord.
Do not touch what is unclean,
And I will receive you.”d]" class="footnote">[d]
18 “ I will be a Father to you,
And you shall be My sons and daughters,
Says the LORD Almighty.”e]" class="footnote">[e]

I hope to explore and apply this commandment to the way I feel some of these societal (legal, political) issues to be unfolding and I'll start with public prayer.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is well known to most politically astute Americans. It reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Entire books could be and have been written about the import of this most sacred amendment and how it has been changed -- I'd argue corrupted, poisoned -- over the last 60 years. I am not going to take that approach here.

Here are some cases which have applied to public prayer. Engel v Vitale (1962) stands for the proposition that required recitation of a prayer, even non-denominational prayers, are unconstitutional. Time set aside in public schools for religious education is also unconstitutional. Zorach v Clauson (1952).

More recently, in Santa Fe Ind School Dist v Jane Doe (2000) the US Supreme Court found unconstitutional student-led prayers which were to be broadcast over the public address system before high school football games.

We recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions' significance...But such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment." wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.

Similarly, Prayers delivered by clergy at official public school graduation ceremonies are unconstitutional. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 (1992).The fact that a prayer is nondenominational or voluntary does not render it constitutional. The U. S. Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on whether student-initiated nonsectarian graduation prayer is constitutional, and the lower Federal courts disagree on the issue.

School officials, employees or outsiders must not offer prayers at school assemblies. Even if attendance is voluntary, students may not deliver prayers at school assemblies either. Collins v. Chandler Unified School Dist., 644 F. 2d 759 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U. S. 863 (1981). See Santa Fe Independent School district, supra.

There's little or nothing left of school-sanctioned prayer and student-initiated prayer might only be permitted under very limited circumstances.

I notice in these cases -- and the cases involving "Under God" in the Pledge, "In God We Trust" on money, or the Ten Commandments in public buildings -- those arguing for public Christian prayer try to sell a non-sectarian prayer to get around the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The idea is that if a prayer is not exclusively Christian it cannot be offensive or coercive and, therefore, should be permitted. Federal courts haven't seemed to buy that argument, at least not broadly.

That is where I, as a Christian, think it's time to rethink this battle! What good is a non-sectarian prayer and why would we as Christians want people to say that prayer? Why would we want non-believers to say a prayer to a God which they refuse to serve? Will God bless a nation of people who say words they don't mean for the sake of tradition?

Jesus, before teaching us how to pray (the Lord's prayer), clearly and unambiguously addressed the issue of public prayer and cautioned against it. Matt 6:5-7 says:

5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.a]" class="footnote">[a] 7 And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Then, of course, Jesus commanded us to pray to "Our Father, who art in Heaven..."

Does Jesus condemn all public prayer in these passages? I do not believe so. The verses suggest that the intention of one's heart is at issue. If you're praying to be seen, to be thought of as pious, you pray in vain. Any public prayer potentially runs afoul on such grounds. We should at least question the motivation for prayer "on the street corners" before doing it. Even a prayer to the One True God could be an error if done out of improper motivation.

Likewise, the Ten Commandments get at this:

3You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Exodus 20:3-6.

It seems to me that a prayer to anyone but the Lord God is a prayer to another god. That, it seems patently obvious, is idolatry. For me personally, I'd rather not pray than pray to some amorphous god that is representative of that being adored by various faiths of the world. That god is not God!

President Obama is well known for his non-sectarian public invocations. People are starting to take notice and question whether or not that approach makes any kind of sense or, worse yet, does damage.

"The larger danger isn't for the Obama administration, it's that the prayer becomes so vacuous," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and an editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. "That, to me as a person of faith, is a larger worry."


See also this blogger's excellent article http://chrisberryonthe.net/2009/01/08...


I think it's time to stop fighting this battle. Instead of pushing for insincere, if not idolatrous, public prayers, let's try to win souls. Let's put that energy and money into serving people in the name of the True God.

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