Do Christians Think Congress Should Be Opened With Prayer to Allah? Thoughts from Brian Lee

In the Daily Caller on Wednesday Brian Lee wrestles with the question of whether he should have opened the House of Representatives with prayer last week. This is not a case of it being easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Lee admits that he was always a bit torn, and that there are arguments both for and against what he did. Generic civil religion, he points out, is worse than problematic for Christians.

Lee, however, did not offer a generic prayer of civil religion last week. He helpfully explains the way he understands what he did as follows:

A church is a particular worshiping community, a creedal body, because it prays to a particular God. When I pray publicly in church, I therefore pray in the first person plural. That is, I pray in common and on behalf of every member of that community…

To whatever degree “Christian” may describe America, we are quite obviously not a creedal nation. Membership in Congress is explicitly not subject to a religious test; it is in this sense an anti-creedal body. It is therefore impossible for me to pray before Congress as I pray in church, on behalf of the assembled body, for Congress does not have an agreed-upon God. However, while I may not be able to pray on behalf of people who don’t share my faith, I can certainly pray for them. In this way, I occasionally pray for sick unbelievers when I’m invited to visit them in the hospital.

Christians must not presume false unity within a pluralistic group by praying in the first person plural on their behalf. If we do pray in such settings, we must pray as individuals, to a particular God, for the group. And indeed, this seems to me most consistent with the pluralistic character of our polity, that we retain our religious distinctiveness even as we enter the public square, instead of pretending as though there is none.

I think Lee gets this just right. But he goes on to note that this perspective gives rise to a poignant problem.

Should the House tolerate prayers like mine, offered in the name of Christ? Only, it seems to me, if it is also willing to accept prayers written in the name of Allah, Buddha, Gaia, or Zeus. My guess is this pluralistic version of Pascal’s wager would enjoy a lot less popular support than generic prayers to a nameless God, and the practice would soon pass away entirely.

Are most Christians OK with the U.S. House of Representatives asking practitioners of other religions to open House functions with prayer? In a sense this was not Lee’s problem when he was asked to lead the House in prayer. That’s why he stands by what he did. As he puts it,

Why then did I accept? God is near to those who call on him in faith. If someone asks a Christian to pray for them — especially a Christian minister — and you can do so in truth, with the love of Christ, and without violating your conscience, you accept.

As my father always said, if he was asked to preach in a mosque he would do it, as long as he was free to preach the gospel. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether a democratic nation, our nation, should request prayers not only from Christians, but from Muslims, Buddhists, or others. If we are OK with this, as Lee seems perhaps to be, how do we justify allowing a political body that represents us to promote what we regard as idolatry? If we are not OK with this, it seems that we should either be consistent and call for the establishment of the Christian religion, or we should oppose such prayers entirely.

What do you think?


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 10, 2013, in Civil Religion, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Do Christians Think Congress Should Be Opened With Prayer to Allah? Thoughts from Brian Lee.

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