With today's inauguration and its attendant events, the question of whether public prayer should be illegal has come up up again. An atheist group has filed suit to prohibit prayers or the inclusion of the "...so help me God" portion to the presidential oath.
This effort is part of a continuing movement to abolish religion from the public sector. The basic principle offered is that people have a right not to be considered excluded at public events, and that occurs when prayer or other actions are part of the official ceremony.
The first basic problem with this view is that the same logic could prohibit all sorts of things. Any ideological point of disagreement becomes verboten. Pacifists could attack any official presentation that assumes war is sometimes required. Those who believe global warming is a hoax [including now hundreds of scientists] could object to any publicly-sponsored discussion of man-created greenhouse affect. Those who believe in supply-side economic could protest anything publicly endorsing demand-side thinking. The list goes on and on. It's just that somehow people think religion should be treated differently from other ideological points.
Which leads to the second problem...
The second basic error is the assumption that the country was set up as a purely secular enterprise. People have created a notion of separation of church and state that really has come from nowhere. You certainly cannot suggest the founding fathers had in mind a religion-free government when one of the two mottos on the great seal of the United States is "He (God) has favored our undertakings" (taken directly from a prayer by Ascanius in Virgil's Aeneid) and the entire basis for our independence was due to "inalienable rights" endowed by our "Creator."
Benjamin Franklin's choice for the great seal: "Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity."
Benjamin Franklin's choice for motto: Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God"
Thomas Jefferson suggested for the front of the seal the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and apillar of fire by night.
However, there is a greater question behind this. Rather than answering the question "Should people be allowed to pray?" There is the question "Should the church support it?"
I was recently contacted by a member sympathetic to the blocking of the inaugural prayer, and she made a pretty good case for Christians not being in a position to support public prayer of the type shown at the inauguration.
Jesus' discussion of the matter in Matthew 6:1-8 cannot be easily dismissed. While it is true that the hypocrisy discussed in the first portion [Matthew 6:1-4] only relates to the obvious evil of praying for show (which, sadly, if we are honest with ourselves, the right-wing cannot really claim general innocence regarding), the second half, Matthew 6:5-8, is an entirely different matter.
Christ points out that praying to God should really be all about our faith that God knows our needs. Praying should not be for the purpose of giving God information about our needs but rather showing our belief in God's providence. Since a single person's prayer can never testify to a nation's faith in God, it's unclear what relevance an inaugural prayer has.
I would think what would make the most sense is for Obama to give a prayer. After all, if prayer says more to God about the individual praying than the needs being prayed for (and certainly more than those being prayed in front of!) wouldn't it make the most sense for the new commander and chief to pray his own prayer?
The most perfect solution would be some situation where it could be nationally recognized that our leaders genuinely depend on God's providence without it becoming an opportunity for show.
Perhaps a prayer-time where Obama prayed silently and everyone else was asked to do the same...surely the genuine prayer of millions each separately praying on behalf of the country, one of whom is the now-leader of that country, does more good than a single person praying on behalf of everyone else.
A case could be made that Jesus is speaking regarding praying for our own needs, and different rules apply when praying for another. In theory, that is what Rick Warren is doing. Fair enough, there is biblical support for praying for another, and leveraging those who are righteous to do so (e.g. James 5:16). The question then becomes "If this is really the idea, why not invite a hundred of the most righteous people and them all pray (silently) with Obama and the millions there?" Surely 100 righteous people plus a million others in attendance plus Obama all praying silently has more pull then a single vocal prayer that has tinges of politics and display to it.
Furthermore, this would make the prayer a bit less than a show. Surely praying at inauguration cannot be supported if our best defense is "we still want to show those no-good atheists who's running this country!"
Other solutions, comments?