The U.S. Supreme Court is mulling over whether the formal institutions of government, in our “one nation under God,” can include so-called legislative prayers to launch their sessions. One must note, of course, the court’s day began with the request, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”
The Almighty is invoked in city halls, legislatures and Congress as a matter of course. What was once undeniably a Christian theme, has been modified over time to include – in some places – the invocations of Jewish and Muslim leaders, Wiccans and others. Typically the practice of prayers in governmental settings is more about tradition, protocols and reflex than humble entreaties to God for guidance.
I want the houses and institutions of government to be open and welcoming to all. And as the U.S. Constitution provides, there is no religious test to be a senator or a dog catcher. Spare me another round of battles about prayer in school. I will leave it to the students to silently seek spiritual support before a test or an athletic event.
Can the president invoke the Almighty at the end of a speech or in a time of national crisis? Yes, of course. That person was chosen by the voters to lead the country with full knowledge of values and expectations of behavior as the nation’s CEO.
Leaders guided by religious values and an inclusive spirit that respects a nation grounded in religious freedom are highly desirable. And that spirit of freedom must include believers and non-believers of all stripes.
City council sessions that do not open with a prayer are not diminished by that choice. All citizens should be comfortable in the houses of government. Supreme court justices and lawmakers fumbling around for the right package of words to make prayers acceptable need some self-awareness.
A one-size-fits-all approach to religion in public life misses the point entirely. Our system presumes neutrality on religion and that should be respected.
In the realm of worship, our leaders can set an example in their private lives, not by rote public performance.