May 20, 2004
The Prayerful Spirit
J. Andrew Daugherty
As we have formally done every year since 1952 (and informally before that), our country recently observed a National Day of Prayer. Permanently slated for the first Thursday in May during the Reagan administration, this day is set aside to acknowledge what President Bush called "the prayerful spirit [that] has always been a central part of our national tradition."
For many, this high-profile celebration of public prayer is an attempt to link God with Americanism. In a 1976 essay in the Journal of Church and State, the late Frank Stagg, referring specifically to the White House prayer breakfast, wondered if such public acts revealed "a nation on its knees before God" or "the church on its knees before Caesar?" He, like many others, recognized the temptation to equate public forms of piety with heartfelt religious devotion.
The fact is that no prayer prescription provides guarantees (for safety, security, political success, etc.) in a time of good or crisis. Nor is there any reason to believe that public displays of supplication, however opulent, will secure any. No, the only prescription for prayer proffered by Jesus himself is: "Don't do it in public", rather, "do it in private."
Notwithstanding Jesus' instructions, our country has always found the practice of public prayer to be fitting, and its history in the United States is well documented. Legislative prayer, by virtue of historical precedent and ceremony, has been held by the United States Supreme Court not to violate the Establishment Clause. According to 1983's Marsh v. Chambers, the nature of such prayer is only an acknowledgement of the religious character of the country, consisting of widely-held beliefs and practices. However, invocations in the Nebraska legislature, considering the Marsh opinion, are only relative to the power and privilege of the State rather than the power and privilege of the sacred.
To be sure, public show of religious practices, such as prayer, can undermine more important spiritual principals and purpose. Although legislative prayer has been held not to offend the Constitution, the distillation of values, voices, and viewpoints may offend the sensibilities of many Christians and people of other faiths, who believe that religious service and practice should be done discreetly. Besides, what may appear pious to some may be odious to others in public forums. In a society of robust religious pluralism, a common civil prayer hardly captures the particularity and integrity of vital religion.
The experience of prayer is not measured or magnified by how many people see and hear it. Such a holy act can only be measured by the faithfulness and generosity of the one who sees, hears, and answers. Generic mentions of God and benign expressions of prayer in the public square, although constitutional, are inadequate substitutes for religious service and practices of private devotion wisely nurtured in the context of a community of faith.
J. Andrew Daugherty is a graduate of Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. and Assistant to the General Counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.