Voices

Rock of offense

By blackballing Christian prayer, a federal judge creates a state religion

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2005

A federal court has ruled that the Indiana House of Representatives may not open with any kind of prayer that mentions "Christ's name or title." This ruling is far more significant than banning the Ten Commandments in courthouses or taking "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance. What the Indiana decision does is to outlaw Christian prayer in the civic arena. And, if it stands, it will mean that no Christian clergyman or layperson can in good conscience pray at public events.

The word invocation does not just mean a prayer that opens a meeting. It means "calling upon" a deity. Virtually every prayer begins by calling upon the name of the person to whom the prayer is addressed.

Islamic prayers-as were also offered in the Indiana House and noted with approval in Judge David Hamilton's ruling-begin "In the name of Allah, the merciful." Is it legal to invoke Allah's name, and not that of Jesus Christ?

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He Himself tells His followers that they are to make their requests to God in His name (John 14:13). So Christian prayers have historically concluded with some variation of "in Jesus' name we pray."

But surely just ending a prayer with that formula is not always necessary, some might say. Many prayers in the Bible, including the Lord's Prayer, do not end that way. Surely Christian clergymen given the honor of praying at a civic event can live with the ruling. Leaving Jesus out of their prayers is a way to avoid offense. After all, we can still address our prayers to Him, if not in words at least in our hearts.

But the Lord's Prayer too begins with an invocation that makes clear whom we are addressing: "Our Father, which art in heaven." Furthermore, it lifts up His name: "Hallowed be Thy name."

It is true that prayers do not have to end in a particular formula, but they still must be offered through Christ. Jesus tells us to pray "in faith" (Matthew 21:22). Only when we are in Christ may we dare come into the Father's presence. But through Christ, our intercessor and high priest, we have free access to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). Also when we pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know what to say (Romans 8:26).

The point is, Christian prayer is trinitarian but it is not generic. It may be possible to address the Trinity without mentioning any of the divine persons. But surely no Christian could accept the terms of the Indiana decision, that you can pray only if you do not invoke your God.

Let us assume that the court's concern for a strict separation of church and state is valid. Let us further assume the tenets of multiculturalism and the value of religious diversity. If I ask someone to pray for me, I can only expect that person to pray to the deity he believes in, using the forms of his religion. A Muslim will give an Islamic prayer. A Hindu will give a Hindu prayer. And a Christian will give a Christian prayer. Each person will pray according to his particular beliefs and the practices of his religion. The same must hold true when a legislature asks someone to pray.

In the Indiana ruling, a federal court dictates the content of a prayer, forbids the invocation of a particular deity, and mandates that prayers may only be directed to a universal divinity who reigns in an interfaith pantheon. That is not religious tolerance; it is religious intolerance. It does not promote religious diversity; it eliminates religious diversity. And when a federal court tells people who they can and cannot pray to and how they are allowed to pray, what we have is state-sponsored religion.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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