Sense and Nonsense: On Praying in Public

At a ceremony in a small naval chapel in Washington at which a nephew of mine was installed as master chief of the Naval Security Group Command, I gave the invocation. I had mentioned this occasion to my friend, Brother George Reilly, S.J., who, when World War II ended, had been a corpsman on a ship in the Sea of Japan. Reilly gave me a copy of a “Prayer for the Nation,” that Thomas Jefferson composed.

As I read the prayer, it seemed quite appropriate for such a public ceremony. Let me recall it here:

Almighty God, you have given us this good land for our heritage. We humbly ask You that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable endeavor, sound learning and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord and confusion, from pride and arrogance, from every evil way. Defend our liberties and fashion into one united people the multitude brought here out of many nations and tongues. Endow with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in Your name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to your law we may show forth Your praise among the nations on earth. In time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble do not allow our trust in you to fail. We ask all of this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer had the right address, the right spirit of honor and eloquence, the right attitude toward our country, its place in the world, its awareness that a nation is to be obedient to God’s law, not its own, that its authority is “entrusted” to its rulers in God’s name.

Clearly, Jefferson’s prayer, whatever his deism, is a Christian prayer. He concluded specifically “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Sailors, moreover, understand a prayer that recalls a nation’s “days of trouble.” They need not only to “trust” in God in military endeavors but also to trust that their nation is indeed engaged in an “honorable endeavor,” that it could and should avoid “every evil way.”

This nation does not have a “civil religion.” That is, its religion is not officially composed or determined by its political processes. A nation, strictly speaking, does not itself pray. It is not a substantial being with a transcendent, personal destiny. It will pass away. But this nation is not a godless nation. Its people recognize that there are times and places for someone to pray in their name. When so praying, the people generally designate some appropriate clergyman or, as in the case of Jefferson, layman to speak in the name of all.

This nation has freedom of religion, not civil religion. That is, it is composed of members of many religions. We have among us Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, and increasingly Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and representatives of almost every world religion.

In light of this variety and in deference to those who maintain that they believe in nothing, some advocate no such public praying. Others think that when someone from a particular religion is asked to pray in public, he should pray in a neutral fashion that will not “offend” anyone. This dogmatic position, ironically, alienates every citizen from his own religion.

When we are asked to pray in public, we should not be asked suddenly to join a nonexistent civil religion and make up an empty prayer to a political deity. Freedom of religion means what it says it does. Thus, as a people, we want public praying on special public occasions. But we also want those who pray to pray as they pray. We do not want them suddenly to pray like some other or no other faith or tradition. At a public gathering, if a Rabbi is asked to pray, we should expect him to pray as a Jew. If a Christian is to pray, he is to pray as his tradition in Christianity prays. If a Muslim prays, likewise he should pray in his own way.

We may have time limits: no need always to recite the whole Divine Office. But whatever we do, we should not ask those who pray to pray in an alien fashion. The person who prays in public does something the nation cannot do—that is, pray. Freedom of religion means that those who belong to a different faith listen. Those who exercise the authority of government, we pray, are “entrusted” with it, not in their own name, but “in your name,” to obey “your” law to show forth “your praise among the nations on earth.”

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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