Should we open Congress with prayer?

Civil religion is thick in America. “God” is on our money, and in the Pledge of Allegiance, not to mention in the Declaration of Independence. We regularly ask him to bless America at ball games. And every session of the U.S. House and Senate opens with a prayer.

Recently the question of civil religion became very concrete for me. I was asked, as a pastor in Washington, D.C., to serve as guest chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, and open that body with prayer. The question of “Whether and what sort of civil religion shall we have in America?” quickly became “Should I pray in the House of Representatives? If so, how?”

I was torn, and proceeded to have a lively debate with myself, based on the terms of my own Christian faith, on whether I ought to accept. Most arguments for and against civil religion tend to be pitched at a generic level, though the merits of generic religion are unclear to me. (I have yet to see a Judeo-Christian church — or would it be a synagogue?) However, it dawned on me that there are a number of quite good Christian arguments for and against public prayer in Congress, and that the more Christians gave serious thought to what their tradition thinks about this, the more welcome they would be when they do speak out. What follows is a brief summary of some key arguments. (Spoiler alert: I accepted and opened the pro forma session on April 30th in prayer; here is text and video, at 2:00.)

I speak from the perspective that the Bible is the very Word of God, and I confess the creeds and Reformed confessions in their plain sense. The arguments reflect what could broadly be considered orthodox and conservative Protestant thought in the Reformed tradition.

1) What the Bible says about public prayer for civil leaders.

The Apostle Paul urges prayers and thanksgivings to be offered for all people, especially “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and dignified life” (1 Timothy 2). Christians believe all governing authorities are established by God, and Paul even calls them “God’s servants” for our good, and for punishing evildoers (Romans 13). In the New Testament, church and state play distinct roles in God’s plan, but both are divine instruments in the world — the church for salvation, the state for preservation. So the state is a fitting subject for Christian prayer, and indeed one we pray for practically every week in our church.

Where these prayers should take place is less clear. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned about hypocrites, who love to pray on street corners “so they may be seen by others” (Matt 6.5). Yet for many Christians today, the whole point to praying in public is to be seen, that we may “bear witness” to the Gospel. This seems to deeply confuse the purpose of prayer with public proclamation, not to mention totally ignore Jesus’ command: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”

Of course, as a minister I get paid to pray in public every Sunday. Which brings us to our next argument.