Why Christians should not pray in public meetings


The Supreme Court has ruled that the town of Greece, New York, did not violate the law by opening town meetings with Christian prayer. Constitutional questions about the role of religion in public spaces are as old as the nation, and all sides of the issue have been fervently litigated. But what is often obscured in these legal battles and the ensuing cultural dialogue is the question that, for Christians, ought to precede the legal debate: What does it do to our faith to insert prayer into public functions?

Many Christians maintain that prayer serves a guiding moral purpose. A recitation of faith is thought to arouse moral sensibilities, evoking a responsibility that extends beyond the mere words of the law and to the conscience of the assembly. Defenders of this view are correct that personal conscience and moral thinking are essential to good governance, and for many believers, faith plays a central role in ethics. But as much as Christian belief may guide political judgment, political corruption also infects Christian thinking.

We know that government and politics are often ugly. We hope to root out corruption and fraud, but even working at its best, politics requires sly thinking, wheeling and dealing, bitter compromise, and even deceit. Much of politics is figuring out how to handle scheming and dishonest people, and sometimes only fire can fight fire. Show me a leader incapable of vice and I’ll show you one incapable of action.

Those who would pray before public meetings hope that Christian reflection might bring more virtue and less vice to the practice of politics. What they overlook is the corruption that politics brings to faith. Many of the permanent qualities and practices of our political system are antithetical to Christian ideals. To make a rite of faith a public political act is to waft the noxious fumes of politics into the sacred space of religion. When we place our faith and our politics in the same arena, it is not our politics that improves but our faith that suffers.

Christians ought to seek moral and political guidance through our beliefs–in private life. The separation of church and state likely does more to protect the church than the state.

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