Prayer is not ceremonial. Prayers offered at public events like football games, graduations and presidential inaugurations are mere ceremony. They are prelude to something else that is the main event. If Jesus is right and prayer is actually a conversation we can have with God, then we have no business reducing it down to the level of a starter pistol at a foot race.
Jesus’ disciples approached him once and said to him, “Teach us to pray.” It was common practice in the ancient world for teachers to instruct their followers in all forms of spiritual practice. According to the New Testament, what Jesus offered in response to their request is what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.
I bring this up because prayer is at the center of a controversy swirling around the upcoming inauguration ceremony. President-elect Obama has invited Rick Warren, pastor of a conservative mega-church, to offer the invocation prayer on inauguration day.
It’s really amazing how many people are angered by this decision. Gays and lesbians who supported Obama are appalled at the selection. Warren’s views opposing homosexuality are well known.
Leaders in the gay community report feeling betrayed by the president-elect’s decision. They fear that Warren’s presence signals unwillingness on Obama’s part to keep his promise about treating all people equally.
Meanwhile, members of the Christian right are aghast that Rick Warren has agreed to offer the prayer at all. Critics contend that by praying at the inauguration event Warren is offering a tacit blessing on Obama and his pro-choice policies. They worry that Warren’s presence at the event signals a softening of the pro-life stance held by many evangelicals.
Which brings us back to Jesus’ disciples. Only instead of needing someone to teach us how or what to pray, we need some reminders about what prayer is and is not.
For instance, prayer is not ceremonial. Prayers offered at public events like football games, graduations and presidential inaugurations are mere ceremony. They are prelude to something else that is the main event. If Jesus is right and prayer is actually a conversation we can have with God, then we have no business reducing it down to the level of a starter pistol at a foot race.
Furthermore, prayer is not a way to make a symbolic statement. In the case of the inauguration ceremony, Obama has invited a conservative right-wing pastor to pray at the beginning, and a stalwart of the civil rights movement to pray at the end. So we get the symbolism. Obama wants a big religiously diverse tent. But using prayer to make that point empties prayer of its actual significance.
And prayer is not generic social discourse. During Bush’s first inaugural, Reverends Kirbyjohn Caldwell and Franklin Graham offered prayers “in Jesus’ name.” Critics argued that at public events many faiths are present, not just Christians. Offering prayers “in Jesus’ name” served to disenfranchise all other faiths present.
Both pastors stubbornly defended their decision. And they were right to do so. Prayer that is not specific is not prayer.
But the critics were also right. This is America, and Americans do not all pray in the same way. In fact, some Americans do not pray at all. In other words, a prayer that reflects a particular religion has no place at a public event, and prayer that has no specific theological content is not prayer at all.
George Washington probably had the best idea. There were no prayers offered during his inauguration ceremony. Instead, after being sworn in as president of the United States, his entourage marched over to St. Paul’s Church, where the chaplain of the Senate read from the Book of Common Prayer.
Apparently Washington understood that authentic prayer requires a proper setting, substantive content and willing participants. Anything less is not prayer.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.