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Column: Public prayer neither salve for ills nor entire problem


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I don’t know how many events I’ve attended in Bartholomew County or Indiana’s Statehouse that have opened with prayer. I’ve even been the one delivering the prayer a time or two.

I do think it’s worthwhile to open public business by reflecting on what our actions mean in the really big picture.

Be it the Statehouse or Congress, it would be wonderful if our leaders would pause and try to see past political posturing and cash-laden lobbyists waiting outside the chamber door.

I’ve got to say, though, if the intent is to call down God’s courage and guidance on our leaders, well, sometimes that seems to work and sometimes it doesn’t.

This May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of the Town Council of Greece, New York, to open its sessions with prayer. Apparently, they have done so ever since there was a Greece, New York.

The plaintiffs — one Jewish and the other atheist — brought their lawsuit because the prayers have almost always been Christian. This, they said, was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Court disagreed. The prayers, they said, were a longstanding tradition. Besides, those attending did not have to participate if they didn’t want to. Therefore, it was not enough of an imposition to warrant intervention.

Folks had plenty to say on all sides of that one. Since those prayers are almost always Christian, though, I wonder if anyone bothered to find out what Jesus himself said about them?

Matthew 6:5-6: “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.

“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy father which is in secret.”

That’s something to think about, even on the local level. If we are truly devout, Jesus calls us to do our praying in secret, in a closet. Public prayer, he says, is the stuff of hypocrites. Public prayer in his name — is a violation of his instructions.

So it’s complicated. I’m not saying opening prayers are necessarily bad. I’m just saying they’re subject to abuse.

Most of the time, I barely remember what anyone ever said during one of those prayers. Including me.

Then again, when I attended the same-sex marriage debate at the Statehouse this year, one minister used the prayer as a form of lobbying. He prayed for the legislators to vote according to that minister’s “morality” on the issue.

Bully for him, I guess. He played every advantage he had. But that didn’t seem to make any difference one way or the other, either.

Most of the time, then, opening prayers at public meetings are just a meaningless exercise. At best, it’s a tradition that makes us feel better for a few minutes. Or maybe worse, if we’re in the religious minority.

A lot of the time, the book of Ecclesiastes sums it up best: “Behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

Let us be patient with the foolishness of our fellow human beings. Even when they’re Supreme Court Justices, Congress persons — or state legislators. Public prayer may not accomplish much. It often is insensitive to minority religious faiths. It is a violation of Jesus’ teachings. But it’s probably not the worst thing they could be doing.

The Rev. Dennis McCarty is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Columbus. His opinions are his own, and members of his church may or may not agree with them. He can be reached by e-mail at editorial@therepublic.com.

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