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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Without a Prayer?

Petitioning God in public comes under assault in an increasingly pluralistic society

By John W. Kennedy
Oct. 24, 2010

After more than two centuries of unimpeded public prayers and proclamations, Christians suddenly are under attack on various fronts for daring to utter a petition to God within earshot of anyone who might be offended.

George Washington, in his first year as the first president in 1789, declared a day of national thanksgiving. In 1952, Harry Truman signed a joint congressional resolution establishing a national day of prayer. Ronald Reagan set the first Thursday in May as the annual day of prayer in 1988. Thousands of communities now hold prayer breakfasts in parks, convention centers, hotels and elsewhere on that day.

In times of national tragedy, presidents have called the nation’s population to pray, from Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War to Franklin Roosevelt before D-Day to George W. Bush in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

But recently, the mention of public prayer infuriates some in our increasingly pluralistic society. In April, federal judge Barbara Crabb of Madison, Wis., declared the National Day of Prayer illegal. Crabb stayed her own order to give the Obama administration time to file an appeal, which it did in July.

The Alliance Defense Fund is one of several religious liberties organizations fighting for the right of Christians to pray in public. Joel Oster, ADF senior litigation counsel in Kansas City, Kan., argues that public prayer has a place because of tradition.

“Historically, America has been involved in religious issues like the National Day of Prayer,” Oster says. “Our Founding Fathers looked to God for guidance. It’s who we are as a nation.”

Legally, Oster says the historic argument is the best defense because it sheds light on what constitutional framers thought when they ratified the First Amendment establishing freedom of religion.

“The Founding Fathers did not think going to God in prayer was a violation of the Establishment Clause,” Oster says.

Religious liberties organizations confine themselves to the legality rather than efficacy of public prayer. However, people such as John Maempa, director of the Assemblies of God National Prayer Center in Springfield, Mo., believe prayers offered in public are not only an expression of faith and reliance upon God, but also a witness to those who don’t know the Creator.

“A public forum helps people who are not believers realize there is a core of believers who seek God’s help and direction in the challenging days in which we live,” Maempa says. “It makes a statement to the larger culture that there is a Source of help beyond our ability to make biblically based wise decisions.”

Maempa also cites events such as See You at the Pole on campuses and Cry Out America intercession rallies, both held each September, as visible examples of Christians seeking God’s protection and provision.

However, Maempa concedes it’s becoming more of a challenge in a public setting to pray in Jesus’ name because of the larger issue of political correctness.

“As Christians, we have to stand by the biblical injunction that there is only one God, and no other name under heaven by which men will be saved other than Jesus Christ,” Maempa says. “Regardless of the culture climate around us, Scripture doesn’t change.”

Dan Calabrese, author of Powers & Principalities, a spiritual thriller with a Pentecostal bent, says some prayers offered in public forums are intentionally vague to risk not offending others in the crowd.

“It’s tough to be real and honest if you’re concerned about everybody else listening,” says Calabrese of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Oster says gaining the right to recite watered-down prayers isn’t his goal. He is representing Greece, N.Y., in a lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AU claims people praying in Jesus’ name to open town board meetings is unconstitutional. Oster finds ironic the prospect of a court — the judicial branch of the government — telling people how to pray and to whom.

“People should pray according to their own personal faith and belief,” Oster says. “The reality of the Constitution is that it does not give you a guaranteed right not to be offended.”

Maempa notes that prayer events are voluntary; no one is coerced into listening to words that might offend spiritual sensibilities. He says public prayer both encourages Christians and enlightens non-Christians.

“Times of public prayer help give platform for the Church to voice a coming together to stand for righteousness,” Maempa says. “Corporate prayer has the capacity to link faith and to support one another in common values in seeking God’s help.”

Christians who find themselves engaged in gatherings where strict parameters require a compromise on beliefs might be better to opt out, Maempa says. Yet even when a public prayer event seems somewhat perfunctory or merely symbolic, God still can be exalted, he says.

“At least God’s name is being proclaimed as the Source of our help and hope,” Maempa says. “Even a nominal gathering is better than not gathering at all.”

Theoretically there never is a wrong time to pray, Calabrese says, but he believes waging a high-profile confrontation at a football game or town council meeting may deteriorate into wrong motives. In such a situation, the prayer usually isn’t a sincere moment between God and the one praying as much as an effort to make a political point, he says.

Legal efforts to invoke the blessing of courts on prayers are misguided, according to Calabrese. He suggests that Christians praying every day in private, relying on the Holy Spirit, can transform a nation more than a once-a-year display of piety. 

“When we start trying to get elected officials and policymakers to somehow come down on our side, we establish the idea that the ultimate faith to prevail will be determined by the government,” Calabrese says. “Christians shouldn’t try to make the federal government into an instrument for the furtherance of God’s agenda. The federal government is a secular institution.”

Maempa believes opposition from atheists, agnostics and non-Christian religions has emboldened some Christians to pray in public. He says lately there has been unprecedented cooperation across denominational lines in the prayer movement.

Oster says Christians need to oppose attempts by the irreligious and non-Christians to revise the religious heritage of the United States.

“We do a great disservice to future generations if we try to hide the religious makeup of our Founding Fathers,” Oster says.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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