Prayer and the Public Arena

By Michael Riccards

I pray.  Yes, you have read it here. I pray for family, friends, people I have never met, for intercessions, for special intentions, and in thanksgiving.  Prayers are special communications with God and/or saintly people asking them to honor one’s petitions.  So I have nothing against prayer in general.  And I don’t make fun of the idea that with 6 or 7 or 8 billion people on this planet, some Almighty Being cares about my needs.  I just accept it, and move on from there.

So you will now feel less uncomfortable with my deep reservations about National Prayer Day.  The notion of a national prayer day is an old idea. President Thomas Jefferson rejected the call for such observations saying that it was inappropriate for a civil magistrate to be mandating such religious observations.  But President Harry Truman, in the midst of the Cold War against atheistic communism, decided to declare such a remembrance, and conservative Ronald Reagan and George Bush II got maximum political advantage out of it.  Now President Obama simply acknowledged it, but did not turn the White House over to the fundamentalists as Bush did.

Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey issued a proclamation, and about 50 people showed up in front of the state house to fight the forces of secularism and relativism on a rainy day. They were mainly Protestant fundamentalists who spoke about the spiritual state of the state, scriptures in the schools, the high court, cabinet and Congress, black genocide, the media, youth, the military, peace in the Mideast, children, state government, cultural assaults on the family, the economy, Spanish ministry, business, the restoration of the nation, and police and fire fighters.

I feel uneasy in appropriating prayer day and praying in a civil observance.  First, prayer should be a very personal and special call to God, and not a rallying cry for my political agenda.  Second, it is not the purpose of the president or the governor to mandate that I “pray for […].”  That really is none of their business.  But it does not mean that religious beliefs do not influence what people do in politics, or what they say on high occasions.

Nor am I making an observation about this being a multi cultural, multi- religious society—although it surely is and has become more so lately.  I don’t just pray in church, but often by myself…but that is really my business, and not that of the government or its elected officials.  If they pray, I guess that is good, but I am more likely to judge them by how they make important decisions than how many hours they spend at prayer ceremonies, beating their breasts in front of others, for it is only your Father who knows your heart.

I also think that prayer in the public arena lends itself to clergy using religion to push their own agendas.  I could not notice without disdain how the National Catholic Prayer Service turned into an anti-Obama rally, featuring reactionary justice Antonio Scalia and the extremist bishop of St. Louis who has decided to chastise Catholics for voting for Democrats.

That is the problem with the fusion of church and state. In the end they both grow weaker and more vulnerable.  Jefferson was right—there should be a wall of separation which in turn protects them both.  Bishops and ministers who preach the politics of division are as bad as presidents who use the Bible to perpetuate anti Moslem stereotypes.

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