Jan  2017 17
The End of Prayers at Political Ceremonies?

Maybe it is time for Christianity to withdraw its blessing from all the ceremonies of political life in the U.S.

I’m a believer in the practice of reciprocity, so I do not mean that Christians should withdraw our blessing from political life only when the people we don’t like get elected. In venturing the thought that Christians should refrain from blessing the ceremonies of political life, I mean all of ceremonies, all the time. Inaugurations. City council meetings. Opening sessions of Congress.

The issue of religion’s support for political ceremonies is in the news. The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, recently needed to defend the choice for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., an Episcopal congregation, to host the post-inauguration prayer service (read the statement).

The Cathedral was the site of post-inauguration prayer services for several presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan, Bush 2, and Obama. (Disclosure: I was thrilled to watch the service, with colleagues from the seminary, when our alumna, former employee, friend, and General Minister of the Christian Church, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, preached for President Obama’s first inauguration.)

But the opposition to Mr. Trump’s presidency, from both conservative and progressive wings of Christianity, including from some persons within Bishop Curry’s own denomination, led to his essay which was fundamentally on why Christians should pray for the president.

Initially, I agreed with Bishop Curry’s viewpoint. And, yes, I think Christians should most definitely pray for the president, and all who accept the responsibilities of public service. But I would now propose that we pray for our elected leaders in church and in our homes, and we decline to pray for them at any ceremony of their making.

Why? Because elected leaders will, more often than not, choose voices who align with their interests.

Elected leaders in this country, with our still highly-religious electorate, are tempted to choose court prophets and priests, who will intone God’s blessing on their causes and bless only the things they want blessed.

So, progressive-leaning leaders may invite a diversity of religious leaders—diverse in religion, at least somewhat diverse in terms of positions on social issues—to pray at an inauguration. But who would pray for a cause that is central to one’s faith and at odds with the one who invited you to pray? An offense of this sort would be considered somewhere between an insult and a sacrilege. A conservative-leaning official would not invite anyone to pray who did not pass the doctrinal litmus test of the official’s base.

I previously wrote that Christianity functions better in a democracy as a critic than as a cheerleader. I’ll push that thought deeper. There may be no more dangerous move for religion in a democracy than to attach “the blessing and will of God” to a candidate or elected official.

Maybe the leaders of the Radical Reformation had it right. The Radical Reformation is one of three expressions of the 16th century Reformation:

·      The Magisterial Reformation (e.g., Luther and Calvin), carried out with the participation of the magistrates (both royals and elected officials).

·      The Catholic and Counter Reformations, meaning the reform movements underway in the Catholic Church of the time, and the efforts to limit or eliminate the Protestants.

·      The Radical Reformation (e.g., Zwingli, Menno Simons), which pushed to dissolve all state control of churches.

Here in the U.S., Radical Protestants such as Roger Williams pushed early for the complete separation of church and state, and of religion from politics because of the way the state uses religion to persecute opponents.

But the desires of religious leaders to be close to elected officials, and of elected officials seeking the “blessing” of influential religious leaders, have often resulted in an unofficial but palpable state-sponsored religion and a religion-sponsored state. And neither a state-sponsored Christianity nor a Christianity-sponsored state are good for exercising Christianity with integrity.

What if we religious types politely declined to offer invocations, litanies, benedictions, sermons, and choirs for public ceremonial occasions controlled by a state actor? What really would be lost, for Christianity?

I am not talking about Christians withdrawing from public life or from exercising our full rights as guaranteed by the First Amendment. In fact, I would hope that not acting in any way as state-sponsored priests and prophets would increase the power of a public witness.

Christians should be best known as those who use a plumb line of love and justice to assess the truth or truthiness of every policy, program, and politician.

So, let’s pray for the president and for all elected officials, but only on our terms.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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