Growing Opposition to Prayer in Public Life

In the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino on December 2, I noted a very disturbing reaction, which speaks of a growing cleft in American society. That chasm should be worrisome both to those who believe America is growing into two separate and irreconcilable societies, as well as for those who think American civil discourse is severely frayed and badly in need of rebuilding.

In our instant media world, immediately after news of the murders in California broke, a number of public officials tweeted condolences to the families, and prayers for the victims. What was most unusual was the acrid pushback they got.

A number of politicians pushing for rigorous gun control legislation used the occasion to score political points. Their essential message: unless you vote for strict gun control measures, keep your prayers. A New York newspaper even declared: “God isn’t fixing this.”

A few thoughts:

  • The same people who announce that “God isn’t fixing this” are also usually the ones who want to use the bad things that happen to good people as an excuse to undermine, if not outright attack, religious faith. God is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The suffering of the innocent is typically trotted out as a charge against God: an omnipotent God who does not stop evil is complicit in it.
  • The same folks whose rejection of theodicy treats God as complicit in evil by “failing” to use his omnipotence to stop it now transfer an analogous blame to politicians: by failing to enact anti-gun legislation, “omnipotent” politicians share complicity in the evil of terrorists and murderers. If those critics don’t believe in God, at least they believe in the efficacy of politics. The omnicompetent State now substitutes for the omnipotent God.
  • But, as Jacques Maritain noted, as transcendence is pushed out, the “Minotaur” of immanence arrives with a vengeance. Even as our culture is pervasively desacralized, it is simultaneously politicized. As Sonny Bunch pointed out, there is a difference between a “political” and a “politicized” life: the former recognizes politics as an important component of human life, the latter treats it as life’s exclusive meaning. “Politics is everything” (Thomas Mann) and “everything is politics.” In a postmodern world that denies transcendence, politics becomes the norm to which everyone’s actions, attitudes, and intentions are reduced, as well as the prism through which they are measured. (For anyone entertaining doubts about the baneful effects of politicizing private life, I refer you to the conversation aboard a train between Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago and a certain “Strelnikov.”)
  • The reduction of everything, including family and festivity, to politics is becoming increasingly widespread. Consider, for example, how several Washington political action committees have generated “talking points” two Thanksgivings in a row, urging activists to “engage” their “crazy uncles” who might attack Obamacare, Syrian refugees, or gun control. Last year, Americans were treated to an activist Christmas with “Pajama Boy,” prepared to point out the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Two holidays with strong religious and family connotations were treated as opportunities to “preach the Good News” of a political agenda.
  • The biggest problem, however, is the failure to appreciate what a believer understands by prayer. As David French cogently observes, “As the secular Left is increasingly separated from authentic expressions of genuine faith, it is losing the capability of understanding the world. Given that religious zeal is so far from their hearts, they have a hard time believing the words of the religious. Thus the constant quest to discern the “real” reasons why believers behave the way they do.”

Whatever one personally thinks of prayer, members of a truly civil society would recognize and respect the meaning and significance of prayer in the lives of at least some of its members. The sincerity of the one who prays is not subject to another’s evaluation. It especially ought to be off-limits to criticism based on one’s support for a political cause.

One can debate whether or not strict gun control legislation would be effective, or even Constitutional. One can even question whether political support for or against such measures is sincere, or just politically opportunistic. But what one cannot question is the sincerity of another’s prayer.

To impugn that sincerity can mean three things. It means putting one’s self in God’s place as he who hears prayer and judges the uprightness of the heart of him who prays; putting one’s self over God by deciding whether or how God has or should answer that prayer; and/or displacing God by deciding that prayer is meaningless. The problem is: no human being has any right to assume any of those positions.

So what is the dirty little secret? Are critics suggesting that some people pray better than others and that they can decide the value of another’s prayer? That one must pass some test of political correctness to smell up the public square with the scent of prayer? Or that we have no time to “waste” on such meaningless prattle as prayer when there’s “work” to be done?

It was, I think, the Polish Dominican Jacek Salij who once identified two features that suggested someone had abandoned real belief in God: when he ceased reckoning with death as judgment, and when he stopped praying. Various commentators have observed that the spiritual chasm cleaving America, of which this controversy is illustrative, splits the religious and areligious. While the latter, in the name of “tolerance,” have hitherto been shoving believers into the sacristy, in the name of their own allergy to the supernatural, the reaction to San Bernardino marked a new milestone: the outright and explicit command to believers to shut up because their spiritual sentiments are unwelcome on a public square to be monopolized by politics—and then only politics of a certain kind.

To the areligious (who really are zealous believers in their own faith), prayer is an impractical diversion. Just as in Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, one who has internalized moral norms is incomprehensible to another operating at the baser “pleasure or pain” or “reward and punishment” levels. Given this, I would argue that among those who see no value in (at least some peoples’) prayers cannot make sense of those who do. They operate at a baser level and aim at reducing those spiritual ambitions to their ideological level. They see no value in the spiritual because, if they had any real clue about it, they would dare not judge another when he prays.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts “The Liberty Window,” in Christ Church, Philadelphia, after a painting by Harrison Tompkins Matteson, c. 1848, titled “The Prayer in the First Congress, A.D. 1774.”

John M. Grondelski

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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