Column: Insisting on public prayer suggests shallow kind of faith

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 18, 2003

One big fuss over a simple prayer, or at least that’s one way to look at the continuing controversy over the removal of the &uot;Serenity Prayer&uot; from Albert Lea City Council meetings.

This is how it began: A year ago, George Marin made a motion to insert the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to each meeting’s agenda. Marin talked about it as a positive symbolic response to the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the developing economic crisis in many communities.

There was some discussion about the appropriateness of changing agenda protocols at that point in time, but there was no real opposition to adding either item. That’s understandable. The pledge is a standard patriotic ritual. And the &uot;Serenity Prayer&uot; is a pretty all-inclusive, every faith type of prayer. While I wouldn’t call it harmless (no conversation with God is ever that), it is inoffensive.

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It bothers me that the recent decision to skip the prayer was made mostly behind the scenes. City government in Albert Lea already has to deal with perceptions of backroom decision-making, so anything that seems to authenticate that belief is unfortunate. But I also didn’t like seeing the same council member always say the prayer, especially one who has expressed ambitions for higher office. Why can’t representatives from the variety of faith communities within Albert Lea volunteer to say that prayer?

I don’t understand why this particular prayer made council members uncomfortable; however, I also take a broader &045; and more secular &045; view of the whole dispute. In many ways the situation with Albert Lea’s city council is similar to the current effort in the state legislature to mandate the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. The real issue in both situations is the appearance of being religious and patriotic, not whether we are actually people of faith or loyal Americans.

Some residents have already written letters lamenting the &uot;lack of prayer&uot; at council meetings, much as people have complained in the past about the absence of public prayer or the Ten Commandments in our public schools or our courtrooms.

Complaining in public, of course, is their right, but there is some confusion here about the kind of praying they are complaining about. Just because nobody stands up and prays out loud during a council meeting doesn’t mean that prayer is absent from the meeting. Just because students in Albert Lea, Alden or Glenville aren’t bowing their heads in class while someone says a prayer over the intercom doesn’t mean that nobody in those classrooms is praying.

The whole controversy is about public, official praying, about public invocations of the &uot;God&uot; on our side. And to be blunt, I find this insistence on public prayer offensive. What it says to me is that silent prayer, done without calling attention to what we’re doing, isn’t really Christian. Quietly going about one’s daily work &045; helping the poor and the weak, respecting our neighbors, and obeying the laws of our nation &045; doesn’t matter for much, it seems, unless we also loudly praise God and pledge our allegiance to the flag.

I’ve written before that being a Christian is more politically popular now than it has been for years. But it’s a peculiar kind of Christianity that is so popular. The focus seems to actually be on how Christian we look, not on the depth of our faith. Wealth and power are again seen as signs of our faithfulness, and poverty as evidence of their sinfulness. It’s the kind of hypocritical obsession with public image that Jesus and every prophet from ancient Israel condemned.

I was taught that we need to learn to pray for others without calling attention to ourselves. Being a Christian in public life &045; whether it means being President, serving in the legislature or on the city council &045; doesn’t mean you have to start each meeting with a public prayer. It doesn’t mean you tell everyone about how often you read the Bible or go to church (although if you claim to be a Christian you had better be doing both of those). Quietly praying for wisdom and guidance whether we are alone or in the midst of a great crowd are more than sufficient.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.