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Want to Be Biblical? Approve Prayers at Inaugurations

Editor’s note: The column below is a response to Jim Evans’ article Inauguration Reminds Us of What Prayer Is, Isn’t, which we carried Jan. 19.

Jim Evans seems to be overly sectarian when he says we should not have prayers at presidential inaugurations. I think he is also working with a reduced Bible. To answer him, we will look at the Psalms, Jesus and Paul.

But first, how does Evans make his case? He looks at the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray and concludes that real prayer is a conversation we can have with God. On that basis he concludes: something is not prayer (1) if it is ceremonial, (2) if it is used to make a symbolic statement, or (3) if it is generic ”if it lacks specific theological content such as in Jesus’ name.

Thus Evans believes certain preachers were correct to insist upon praying in Jesus’ name at presidential inaugurations. But he also thinks the critics of these preachers were correct. Christian-specific prayers exclude all Americans except Christians. Evans’ conclusion? No public prayers at inaugurations!

But prayer in the Bible is a more many-splendored thing than Evans imagines. Yes, there is the private or small-group prayer that Jesus has in mind where he teaches his disciples to pray (Luke 11; Matthew 6). But are these the only kinds? Is there no such thing as authentic ceremonial prayer?

Most of the Psalms are prayers. Although the majority are individual prayers, at least 32 are communal (see the Anchor Bible Dictionary). They were composed ”and inspired! ”for ceremonial gatherings in the Temple. Did Jesus approve? Well, he said God wanted the Temple to be “a house of prayer for all the nations [gentiles]” (Mark 11:17).

Some of these ceremonial gatherings seem to have had political connections, but even if they didn’t, eight of the Royal Psalms are communal. They were composed for occasions where the focus was on the fortunes and affairs of the head of state, the king.

But the Jerusalem Temple is long gone, and it is not essential to Christianity, anyway. Does that mean the Psalms are no longer models or resources for Christian prayer and worship? In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus said that, inasmuch as neither Jerusalem nor Mount Gerizim is now the place to worship, God the Father seeks those who worship him in spirit and truth (John 4).

Jesus’ point is that, whenever and wherever we are in the Spirit and in the truth, we are in the Temple and may worship and pray. If the Psalms authorized public ceremonial prayers in the Temple ”and they did! ”they now authorize ceremonial prayers for Christians anywhere, even outdoors in Washington D. C.

But what about the non-Christians at presidential inaugurations? In Romans Paul writes that, in God’s creative work in nature, God reveals a lot about himself to people ”to all people “ and that God also writes on the hearts of the gentiles the things that his Law requires (Romans 1:19-20; 2:14-15). Moreover, in his sermon in Athens, Paul says God created people so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him ”though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ˜In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:27-28).

If there is such an instinctive reaching out to God inside of people, why is it a bad thing and not a good thing to let it take shape briefly in words, in prayers, when people gather on certain high occasions? True, such prayers may sometimes be only generic. But the Athenians’ prayers were obviously generic: they were to an unknown God ! Paul did not think such prayers were enough, but he accepted them as real as far as they went. The verses quoted make that clear.

Here Evans might object that I have managed to include all the religious types at an inauguration ”Jews, Muslims, New Agers, whatever ”but what about seculars and atheists? If there is any reaching out to God going on inside them, they either don’t know it or won’t admit it. And they don’t want somebody to use the government to ram it down their throats.

There’s truth in this. But it’s not the whole story. Consider the symbolism of praying. Evans is far too negative here. He says it empties prayer of its actual significance when it is used as a way to make a symbolic statement. He criticizes Obama for choosing preachers from the religious right and left because he wants a big religiously diverse tent.

Without denying Obama’s political interests we ask: Who is to say that Obama (or anybody else!) is only using public prayers for improper or ulterior purposes? This is a question of motives. Evans may be a bit judgmental here. These people may sincerely want to participate in the prayers for their stated purpose ”to invoke God’s presence and blessing.

But back to the secular types. If we really talked with them, we would find that they take some things as ultimate and never to be betrayed, things such as human rights, liberty, justice, friendship, love. If seculars can fight off the sectarian spirit ”if they can resist the impulse to say you’ve got to say it my way or no way ”they may be grasped by the symbolism of praying despite some of the things the prayer literally says. They may experience prayer as a moment in which they are mindful of whatever it is that has the kind of claim on their lives that God has on ours.

I don’t think there are many seculars who are so sectarian that they are bothered by public prayers. I believe a lot of them are touched by the symbolism of prayer in something like the way I have described.

We can be good Baptists and hold to church-state separation without being sectarian Scrooges ”without saying Bah, humbug to every ceremonial expression of popular religious concern. How do I know this? The Bible tells me so. The whole Bible, that is ”not the reductionist’s Bible.

Robison B. James is Cousins Professor of Religion Emeritus at the University of Richmond and research professor of theology at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond.