Prayers at Public Meetings

By Bob Litton

When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
— Matt. 6:5-6

On May 25th, 2012, I heard a radio news report that the City Council of Weatherford, Texas, was to study the issue of whether they should institute the practice of saying a prayer and pledging allegiance to the flag(s) at the start of meetings.  No such proceedings had been part of Weatherford City Council meetings for 30 years, the reporter said, and no one remembered why they were discontinued back then.  According to newspaper reports, the council was under pressure from a bunch of local ministers to have an invocation.  The council, however, was concerned especially about two potential problems: (1) the possible perception of unfairness in the representation of different faiths and denominations; and (2) the possibility that some of the clergy would extend their time at the podium overmuch.

The news report, coming as it did just while I had been pondering, for weeks, the same practices at Alpine City Council meetings and debating with myself whether I should risk my friendships—and perhaps even my life—by writing about it, served as a goad for me to do so.

Not all governmental bodies in this area have both an invocation and a pledge of allegiance ceremony.  Some just have a board member say a brief prayer.  At least one body does neither.  The Alpine City Council, however, has a practice of inviting local ministers on a rotating basis to say a prayer, followed by a recitation of  the pledge of allegiance, first to the U.S. flag and then to the Texas state flag.

Here I must acknowledge that what I write is based on my own beliefs, no matter how much I intend to be open-minded and equitable in what I say.  At this point I want to recall to my readers’ minds Roger Williams, who is a saint in my own personal heaven.  Williams was a 17th century Calvinist minister, theologian, philosopher…and, eventually, freethinker.  Many modern American religion professors consider him one of the profoundest theologians in American history.  He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he believed, and taught, that no creed should be force-fed to an individual, that every person—even the Native American “savage”—has a right to develop his or her own relationship to God.  Williams and his followers founded the colony of Rhode Island as a haven for those who wished to develop themselves spiritually according to their own studies and insights.  He is regarded as the originator of the American ideal of separation of Church and State.  I am a firm believer in that ideal.

While I would like to see an absolute separation of Church and State, I will concede two areas where some compromise seems feasible.  For one, state parks are public property, supported and maintained by taxpayers’ dollars.  Yet, some religious groups hold small workshops, spiritual retreats and Easter sunrise services at those parks.  I see nothing wrong with that, as long as such groups are not large, their stay is not extended and they show no outward sign of proselytizing to others.

Pointedly related to that, I was faced with a quandary once while I was editor of the paper in another small West Texas town in the early 1980s.  The Baptists had planned a revival but thought their sanctuary was inadequate to accommodate the hoped-for crowd, so they asked the school board for permission to rent a school facility for the event.  Having previously written a couple of columns in which I acknowledged (essentially as parenthetical remarks) that I was not a Christian, I hesitated to publicly comment on this development, even though I saw it as a potential major infraction of the “separation of Church and State” standard.  My “bias” was already out in the open.  Instead, I wrote a concise but, I thought, cogent personal note to the school board urging them not to approve the rental, and handed it to the assistant school superintendent, who passed it on to the board members.  At the next board meeting, when the revival meeting subject came up for a vote, the board members asked the school superintendent if he had received any comments from the community about the idea.  “Only from the newspaper man,” he said.  The church’s request was approved.  The question that has gnawed at me ever since is: Should I have written a column alerting the citizenry to the gross invasion of public property by a particular religious group?

So, you see, my position is that, while parks should be open for use by small church groups for Easter sunrise services or Sunday school retreats, no public facility should be used by a religious group as a place for proselytizing.

And, while I very much disapprove of the current Alpine Council’s procedure of inviting local ministers to leave their supper tables and come say a prayer at City Hall, I quite understand their desire to obtain whatever inspiration they can from wherever they can get it, especially on those occasions where decisions must be made on matters that offer no painless options.

The problems with the practice are that (1) only Protestant ministers give the invocation, although occasionally a Catholic layperson will do so; (2) some ministers, naturally enough, considering what has been asked of them, apparently feel that a fairly lengthy prayer is needed, sometimes one that resembles a mini-sermon; while many of these mini-sermons are eloquent and worthy, they are still mini-sermons (in other words, the ministers are not addressing God, they are addressing the council members); (3) their prayers always end with the sentence “In Jesus’ name we pray” or words of the same meaning, completely oblivious of the fact that in the recent past three Jews that I know, at least one Hindu and no telling how many of other persuasions had been frequent attendees; and (4) the practice leads one to suppose that the council believes only ordained ministers — in particular, Protestant ministers — know how to pray, or that God only listens to such professionals.  Recall how, in August 1980, Baptist preacher and, at the time, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Bailey Smith made news by exclaiming that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”  To be fair, we should acknowledge that some other Baptist conventions distanced themselves from Smith’s point of view and asked him to apologize for saying it: he declined to do so. Also, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter withdrew his membership in the Southern Baptist Convention because of Smith’s intransigence.

But, to my mind, the most egregious problem with prayers at public meetings is that they are regimented on a captive audience.

My proposed compromise solution to this issue is actually a choice of two approaches.

The first is to schedule a one-minute meditation time during which every member of the council and the audience can silently address his or her own concept of God or Higher Power, and the mayor can signal that the minute is up by saying “Amen”, with the audience repeating that word.

The second approach is to adopt a modified form of 20th Century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer—the one used at AA meetings and known as “The Serenity Prayer”.  If memory serves me right, this prayer has been slightly altered over the years; but presently, as AA members recite it, it says:

God, grant us
The serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
The courage to change the things we can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Note the universality of this prayer; it is non-creedal.  Note also that it asks God to improve our human attributes — elements within ourselves — not in the external world.  What it asks for is totally inclusive — everything that is needed.  It allows that it is our job, not God’s, to make needed changes when necessary.  It just asks God to give us the insight and strength necessary to improve the world and our own lives.  Above all, it does not make a “Step-‘n’-Fetch-it” of God.

I would suggest that the council alter just one line.  Instead of “The courage to change the things we can”, I would express that line thus: “The courage to change the things that should be changed”; for, not everything that can be changed should be changed.

Here I will thank Saint Roger Williams for his inspiration in the writing of this “letter to the community”.  I hope I have not disappointed him.


Note To Readers:  The Alpine City Council, after reading this essay in its original form in 2012, invited a Greek Orthodox minister and a local Jewish citizen activist (there is no synagogue in the county) to give invocations but did not advise local ministers to dispense with the usual Christocentric conclusion.


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