Speak Your Piece: Pray in Closet, Not Public

The Supreme Court’s decision to allow public prayer opens the door for more invocations at official local government meetings. In small towns, leaders should think twice before assuming everyone is the same when it comes to religion – or lack thereof.

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The mayor of Dillsboro, North Carolina, has decided to open the town’s official meetings with Christian prayers delivered by local clergyman after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for such invocations in a 5-4 vote last month.

Mayor Mike Fitzgerald defended his decision by saying the community will accept the new practice and it is in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling. “They said [public prayer is legal] as long as it’s what your town is used to,” he said in an article in the Sylva Herald. “And we ain’t got nothing but Baptists in town.”

Dillsboro is in the southwest corner of North Carolina. It has 232 residents, according to the 2010 Census. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has a station in Dillsboro, and the town’s business district is focused primarily on tourism. According to Sylva Herald article (which a retired philosophy professor friend sent me), the town has two churches: Jarrett Memorial, which is a Baptist church, and a storefront nondenominational congregation. The town’s website makes clear that the town’s focus is its business district, which makes the mayor’s contention about being exclusively Baptist perhaps a bit presumptuous.

Prior to the announced change, Dillsboro opened its town meetings with a moment of silence.

My initial response to my friend’s email was to suggest that perhaps the town might also find it appropriate to read the lyrics to the Bob Dylan song  “God on Our Side”  (a beautiful Joan Baez version is here). I sent him a link to the lyrics, and he replied that I’d saved him the effort of raising several philosophical arguments in response to the mayor’s position.

I thought too of Mr. Fitzgerald’s own tradition as a professing Baptist. Matthew 6:5-6 seems to offer a pretty clear stance on public prayers. From the King James Version we are told that Jesus taught:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you they have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and they Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Fitzgerald told the Sylva newspaper that the prayer was about seeking wisdom, not conversions. “We’re not trying to make anybody a Christian,” he said. “We are just going to ask for a blessing on the town’s decisions.”

 

Cartoon by Jimmy Margulies

Who wouldn’t want a public servant to hope for wisdom? If we take the mayor at his word that he is not trying to make anybody a Christian, then there’s no reason that he and like minded board members couldn’t gather quietly before their meeting and ask for specific religious guidance. But Fitzgerald’s actions seem designed to demonstrate a particular prejudice, not simply toward a Christian preference but even a denominational one with his presumption that, “we ain’t got nothing but Baptists in town.”

My friend the philosopher said that such public prayers are theologically suspect:

In Christianity, prayer is a human action directed to God which derives its sacred meaning from God.  (The same can be said of almost any other great religion.)  Prayer directed to anything other than God has no sacred significance and is, in fact, profane in the sense that it is not sacred or holy.  Prayer that has its purpose, prayer that is directed to, social and political cohesion is not directed to God and is profane.  Prayer whose purpose is social and political cohesion is without sacred meaning.  The majority opinion in [a] recent Supreme Court decision included the claim … that the prayer in [another] town had only a “ceremonial function and thus was not a state establishment of a religion.”  Such prayer is desecrated. 

The Supreme Court’s latest decision on this subject is not likely to be its last. The current opinion, including the dissents, is well worth reading and pondering. It should make us think about how we get along with our neighbors in small towns when spiritual and religious beliefs enter the public square.

Despite disagreeing with much of what Joe Carter, author of the blog, “First Things” and a self-proclaimed member of the religious right, says in this post from 2010, I can appreciate the respect he shows in his conclusion:

… We must recognize that America is not a “Christian nation,” though we should aspire to be a nation whose Christians are admired as good and noble citizens. America is not a “shining city on a hill,” though we should let our light of freedom be a shining example for the entire world. America is not the “greatest blessing God gave mankind,” though it is a great nation worthy of our faithfulness. Patriotism has a role but must not be allowed to expand beyond certain intellectual borders. We are citizens of both the City of God and the City of Man, and must always be sure not to confuse the one for the other.

I’m more comfortable with Carter’s sentiment than I am with that of a commenter on the Sylva Herald site who intoned: “Fortunately, anti-American goons like Mike Fitzgerald are dying off. Hope he’s in heaven really soon!”

Mayor Fitzgerald’s decision to open town council meeting with prayer seem quick and lacking much thought or insight. I don’t think, however, that the comment above is an acceptable response. I’m not sure what it accomplishes, other than to demonstrate that emotional reaction is not solely limited to one side in these sorts of discussions.

My grandfather often wondered why when he opened a window for fresh air, someone else might complain about a draft. My grandfather spent his life looking for fresh air, as he called it. We could use a little as we discuss prayer in the public square and state-sanctioned religion.

 

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