Should we open Congress with prayer?

Dr. Brian Lee Pastor, Christ Reformed Church
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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.

2) The difference between Congress and church.

Before you file this under “most obvious argument ever,” take a moment to consider exactly what the essential difference is. A church is a particular worshiping community, a creedal body, because it prays to a particular God. When I pray publicly in church, I therefore pray in the first person plural. That is, I pray in common and on behalf of every member of that community. While guests are welcome to observe and join in, there is no presumption they must do so. In doing so I presume for all to whom we are praying, and how we are praying, and why we expect our prayers to be answered.

To whatever degree “Christian” may describe America, we are quite obviously not a creedal nation. Membership in Congress is explicitly not subject to a religious test; it is in this sense an anti-creedal body. It is therefore impossible for me to pray before Congress as I pray in church, on behalf of the assembled body, for Congress does not have an agreed-upon God. However, while I may not be able to pray on behalf of people who don’t share my faith, I can certainly pray for them. In this way, I occasionally pray for sick unbelievers when I’m invited to visit them in the hospital.

Christians must not presume false unity within a pluralistic group by praying in the first person plural on their behalf. If we do pray in such settings, we must pray as individuals, to a particular God, for the group. And indeed, this seems to me most consistent with the pluralistic character of our polity, that we retain our religious distinctiveness even as we enter the public square, instead of pretending as though there is none.

3) The unknown God as the object of prayer.

It is a little odd, in my opinion, for the House of Representatives, which can’t officially believe in any particular God, to want to officially offer prayers to no God in particular. It brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17, when he notes the very religious nature of a people who raise altars dedicated “to an unknown God.” Paul grants that this unknown God was in fact the Creator God of Christianity — just as I recognize “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence as the Triune God of Scripture. But then he calls the Athenians to repent of their ignorant folly in light of the resurrection of Christ.

This argument is a hard sell. Americans like their gods unknown, and their religion generic, and the more generic the better. “Hey, we’re all on a spiritual journey, no one has a corner on truth, and you can’t judge me for the object of my prayer. I’d rather members of Congress pray to someone — even just a higher power — than not pray at all.” Or, in the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Civil religion is the enemy of the particular God; owned by every citizen, it is by definition generic.

There may be practical arguments, a la Ike, for civil religion and its generic prayer to an unknown God. It may be good public policy, and might even be good for your health. But these aren’t Christian arguments, and as a Christian minister I can’t encourage people to falsely pray to a God they don’t know and don’t believe in.

Therefore, I accepted the invitation to pray as a guest with the understanding that I could pray a Christian prayer, in and through the merits of Christ. Should the House tolerate prayers like mine, offered in the name of Christ? Only, it seems to me, if it is also willing to accept prayers written in the name of Allah, Buddha, Gaia, or Zeus. My guess is this pluralistic version of Pascal’s wager would enjoy a lot less popular support than generic prayers to a nameless God, and the practice would soon pass away entirely.

4) The nature of Christian prayer.

Christian prayer is redemptive. We pray to God not as rights-bearing citizens deserving of our hearing in court, but as penniless beggars, debtors before his throne of mercy. As a Reformed Christian, I don’t hope, I know, this God will answer my prayers — not based on what I deserve, but based on what Jesus has done for me. When I pray publicly, as a Christian minister in church, I pray with this confidence on behalf of all the baptized members of that church, all who have professed faith in the work of Christ alone, and trust on him alone. I pray for their salvation, as well as for everything needful for body and soul. This is the essence of Christian prayer.

It is not only unchristian, but rude, to offer such a prayer publicly on behalf of people who don’t claim Christ. Therefore, I explicitly limited the scope of my House prayer. While I invoked the name of Christ that my prayer might be answered, my prayer was not stealthily evangelistic, or redemptive. Rather I prayed for those blessings which the Lord is pleased to give to all men in common. I prayed that the House would fulfill God’s purpose for all civil governments: “to protect the defenseless, praise those who do good, and punish those who do evil” (1 Peter 2.14, Romans 13). America may be exceptional in many ways, but not in God’s eyes, and Christians everywhere should pray these things for their government, whether they live in Syria, China, Israel, or Russia.

Frankly, as I write this, I remain torn about whether I should have prayed publicly before the House.

None of my arguments in favor of praying for the state suggest that you should do so publicly in the halls of government, outside the home, or the context of a worship service. None of them fundamentally overcome Christ’s warning against hypocrisy and vanity.

Why then did I accept? God is near to those who call on him in faith. If someone asks a Christian to pray for them — especially a Christian minister — and you can do so in truth, with the love of Christ, and without violating your conscience, you accept.

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.