State Sanctioned Prayer -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

On occasion I pray at public gatherings.  I've even prayed to open a local city council meeting.  Just did it once, in part because I have meetings most Monday evenings -- the night the city council meets.  I struggle with how to pray at such gatherings -- wondering who the expected audience might be.  The Supreme Court recently heard a case that deals with such prayers, and there are many who hope the court will come down on their side -- either allowing persons free reign to pray when, where, and how they would like, or putting up a nice solid wall.  As Martin Marty notes here, partisans are seeking a decision that will tiddy up something the writers of the Constitution left a bit ambiguous.  Elsewhere Marty has noted that the Constitution didn't exactly build a tall wall, but instead drew a sometimes blurry line between church and state.  As you read this piece by Martin Marty, I think you'll discover that for those of who are professors of faith concerns the purpose of our prayers.  Are we praying to make a political point or to be in conversation with God on behalf of a community?  Take a read and let's have a conversation.


State Sanctioned Prayer
Monday | Nov 11 2013
Alex Staroseltsev / Shutterstock
Let us pray: “in the name of the one who came, and died, and rose again that we might have eternal life—Jesus Christ our Lord—Amen.” Thus Dr. Robert Jeffress, “pastor of the 11,000 member First Baptist in Dallas, Texas, and daily radio broadcast on 760 stations,” brags about how he set out to please God and taunt those who disagreed with him about the politics of prayer.

This tactic worked to Jeffress' satisfaction, for he could report that immediately after the “Amen,” “a member of the council expressed his offense at the content of [this] prayer.” Of course he would; getting such a reaction was the purpose of Jeffress’ praying. Listen to those school officials, town council members, visitors to courts, and others who issue similar taunts—you’ll be put on the defensive just for asking that the business of the gathering proceed without cultural wars and other uncivil wars to precede them.

The US Supreme Court last Wednesday (November 6, 2013) heard Town of Greece v. Galloway, this year’s case “challenging the constitutionality of prayers before local government meetings.” Expect continuing debates over the case, the Court, and the contenders, if not as prolonged as Pastor Jeffress’ “eternal life,” then at least as long as Americans on all sides invoke God or non-god in public forums. As thousands of bloggers and interest-group leaders responded at once, it became clear that this year again the Court will be called to resolve the irresolvable and put an end to the unendable debates on this subject.

Whoever reads any number of the hundreds of on-line responses on all sides, has reason to recognize that the founders “solved the religious question by not solving the religious question” in the Constitution and its First Amendment. Competing interests in such cases and what they signal are too diverse, seldom surprising, and likely unpromising for the public good and the witness of religious institutions.

Re-read the Jeffress prayer in its point of origin, the Dallas City Council, and you are privileged to decide: is this prayer, as offered and described, prayed to the glory of God, or designed to evoke the kind of response it got? And, since the Court decision will not begin to satisfy or to resolve all interests, see whether anything advances the possibility that the Court or town hall or public school leaders after 2014 will act more judiciously, fairly, or wisely than if they had not been bullied by pray-ers.

The main preliminary arguments to the Supreme Court for prayers, as voiced last Wednesday, come down to: “we’ve always done that before.” Or “we’re bigger’n you are.”

More and more the question is becoming: who are the “we?” The one Wiccan, the other three or four “others” who did not call upon the God of the Majority population invoked at Greece, New York, are not fully representative of the true and new “we.” Before long in any number of communities Muslims will outnumber many other constituencies. What will the people whose only case is that “we and our God were here first, and that we set historical precedents” have to say and do?

Perhaps some day, even those who obviously find political uses for their public prayers, will recognize that the God whom this majority fears or would fear or would want others to fear, gave pretty clear guidelines in “their” Book against trumpet-blowing and boasting uses of prayer.

Not that all have to follow the Jesus invoked in Dallas into their “chambers” and shut the doors. With others who share their faith and would direct prayers in their contexts, they can pray, including in synagogues, churches, or mosques. That’d be more impressive than the noises (like mine, here) in argument without end.

For further reading:

Jeffress, Robert. “Will Supreme Court strike a blow for religious freedom in Greece v. Galloway?” Fox News, November 4, 2013.

Podkul, Alexander. “Greece v. Galloway Could Bring Down a Valuable American Tradition.PolicyMic, November 6, 2013.

Lithwick, Dahlia. “Say a Prayer for the Supreme Court: Can the justices settle the world’s religious differences?”, November 6, 2013.

Laarman, Peter. “God’s Amicus Curiae on Town of Greece v. Galloway SCOTUS Case.”, November 7, 2013.

Photo Credit: Alex Staroseltsev / Shutterstock
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.
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