|Given the tendency for public prayer to degenerate into religious grandstanding and arrogance, it's no wonder Jesus instructed the bulk of our prayer to be accomplished in private.
All last week, a group of Christians mostly associated with the two right-leaning organizations, Christian Defense Coalition and Faith and Action, erected a 16-foot white cross on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol to offer non-stop prayers with the expressed purpose of calling upon President Bush to establish a National Day of Prayer, especially in light of the current economic crisis.
They called their event "The D.C. Awakening." While the photos showing such a mixing of the symbols of religion and government should be unnerving to most Baptists with an historic appreciation for our stance on religious liberty, citizen groups are welcomed to offer programs of peaceful assembly and public awareness on the Capitol's west lawn.
Frankly—though I may not share the philosophy of these two particular groups—I applaud and defend their right for prayerful assembly, as long as all the other religious groups representative of our country's broad religious diversity have the identical freedom and opportunity to do so. But it doesn't stop me from wondering about us—the Christians—and how we might conduct ourselves during times of prayer, especially when we verbalize our prayers within the public square.
This past Saturday, coincidently the culminating day for "The D.C. Awakening," the nation learned of another attempt at public Christian prayer offered at a McCain political rally in Iowa. The Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church, prayed:
"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god—whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah—that his opponent wins … . And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens."
To its credit, the McCain campaign quickly distanced itself from the content of this prayer. It fully illustrates, in addition to the thorny problems of threatening God, exactly how Christians manipulate the sacred function of prayer as a means for sectarian division rather than respect and peace.
My work in the interfaith community has called me to balance between two poles. One, forged in my Baptist commitment to the liberty of conscience and the integrity and freedom of each individual, seeks to value the faith of another. As my colleague Rabbi Marc Kline has shared, his job is to help individuals deepen faith in their own traditions. If he is speaking with a Hindu, he hopes his ministry will allow that person to be a better Hindu; if a Muslim, a better Muslim; if a Christian, a better Christian, etc.
The other pole, also forged in my Baptist upbringing, speaks to my Christian witness and ability without apology or anger to fairly represent my personal faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. I have discovered that this commitment is better served through friendship and conversation than sneaking it in the unsuspecting platform of a public prayer.
Given the tendency for public prayer to degenerate into religious grandstanding and arrogance, it's no wonder Jesus instructed the bulk of our prayer to be accomplished in private. When we do speak, if it is not done with grace, fairness and respect for others, I hardly see how we could ever consider such a prayer Christian.
Mark Johnson is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.