Every Sunday morning I speak a few brief words of prayer asking for spiritual and material blessings. The prayer is offered in the name of the triune God and the congregation responds, "Amen." That little four-letter Hebrew word is a powerful one. By it, the ancient Israelites bound themselves to the blessings and curses God attached to the Law. By it, those who hear another's prayer today solemnly say to the Lord, "I agree and ask the same."
As the service is conducted in our church, I don't have an opportunity to check to see if everyone responds "Amen!" to our weekly "collect" as we call this prayer. I'm facing the altar with my back to the congregation, so it's possible that someone in the back pew withholds their "Amen!" occasionally. But I'd be surprised. After all, our regulars are there because they share a common confession of faith. Visitors would surely be aware that they're entering a Christian church because of the cross that stands in the yard and they'd be on notice of our theology because of the "Lutheran" on the church sign.
Such is not the case at a public meeting of a town council or school board. One need not share the faith of elected officials or the community majority in order to attend. In fact, the First Amendment to our Constitution strictly forbids any such requirement. At the typical meeting, there may be Baptists who prefer to pray "in the name of Jesus," Catholics who pray the "Hail Mary!", Jews who cannot say "Amen!" to either and atheists who do not pray at all. How can someone lead a collective prayer and expect "amens" when those present have not gathered out of common belief?
None of this is to say that prayer has no relevance to public life. Our little flock prays every Sunday for our leaders in national and state government as well as those risking their lives in defense of our nation. Individual Christians can pray daily for those same officials -- and sometimes more frequently, depending on the day's events. Who would ever object upon observing a school board member bow her head and pray silently for God's guidance, as a meeting was about to begin? Christians can be thankful that the same First Amendment that guarantees the Wiccan full status as a citizen also protects the right of each of us to offer our individual prayers without interference from the government.
But let's not pretend that a town council meeting is a gathering where all people do -- or must -- believe the same with respect to religion. I will not be able to say "Amen!" to the Catholic commissioner's prayer to Mary nor will the Jew be able to affirm in good conscience the Lutheran school board member's prayer "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." If we take just a moment to imagine ourselves in a community where we were a small religious minority, it's not hard to understand how uncomfortable and even excluded we might feel if a public meeting began with a prayer to which we could not say "Amen!" If we take seriously God's respect for our free will, it will be clear how offensive it is to the Lord when we subtly use the government's authority to extract an "Amen!" from those who do not believe.
It is sad that it has been necessary for the federal courts to step in to protect South Carolina citizen Darla Kaye Wynne from her self-professed Christian neighbors. Ms. Wynne, a Wiccan, only sought to express herself at her town's council meetings on the rather mundane matter of increasing police patrols to reduce drug dealing, but she was met first with rude attempts to coerce her into renouncing her religion and later with harassment and even violence. The facts of the case should lead all fair-minded people of faith to wonder whether prayer led by public officials can ever be a purely benign matter.
Our city councilors and school board members should be relieved of the burden of leading "collects" at public meetings. After all, those who pray in the name of Jesus should remember his warning about the risk of praying ostentatiously in front of others:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)
Rev. Allen H. Brill is co-founder of "Why Not, South Carolina?", an organization supporting South Carolina progressives. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.