Sunday, February 14, 2010

Praying Over Sewers, Liquor Licenses and Variances

The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently targeted Wheaton, Illinois, urging officials to discontinue their practice of offering a prayer at the beginning of city council meetings.

My first thought on this is, Why does a national group with its headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, need to insert itself into the affairs of a small Illinois town? Shouldn't they trust the citizens of Wheaton to make decisions for themselves?

So I looked into the archives of the FFRF, and discovered that the complaint actually originated with a Wheaton resident, who wrote a letter asking that the invocations be discontinued. So that's a different story, right? He has a right to complain, because it's his city also. He didn't get satisfaction: the Mayor said, "No one has ever complained before!"--which is not an answer. When the complaint comes from one of your tax-paying residents, you have to deal with it.

In response to the FFRE complaint, the city has tweaked its policy about prayers during council meetings. The invocation will be given before the mayor officially bangs the gavel to start the meeting. This is not good enough for the FFRF, whose spokesperson Annie Laurie Gaylor said, "Why do they need to pray over sewers, liquor licenses, and variances?"

Tomes have been written about prayer by ancient church fathers, Reformation-era leaders, and contemporary teachers and theologians, and I won't attempt to give a thorough treatment here. But the short answer is: Prayer is conversation with God, and we pray because we believe God hears our prayers.

The God of the universe hears and answers our prayers! And not just our prayers about so-called spiritual matters, because this dichotomy between sacred and secular is false. Jesus, we believe, is Lord of all things, not just Lord of churchy things. And that's why we pray over sewers, liquor licenses and variances.

But even though the question about praying over variances has theoretical appeal and practical value, it is irrelevant in these circumstances. The issue for Jesus-followers in this situation is not whether it is legitimate to pray about city business, but whether it is a matter of Christian principle to insist upon doing so. The guiding principle, I believe, comes from Romans 12:18: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."

There is no need for the believers on the city council of Wheaton to insist on their legal right to pray at the meeting, whether before or after the gavel. It's not connected to any Biblical mandate, and it doesn't accomplish anything that prayer at a separate time and place wouldn't accomplish. Insisting on praying at the meeting appears to be more of a flexing of political muscle than a demonstration of Christlike humility and a desire live at peace with everyone.

We'll give Dietrich Bonhoeffer the last word:
The followers of Christ have been called to peace. . . . And they must not only have peace but also make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods. . . . His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they over-come evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate. (The Cost of Discipleship)
What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I applaud your well thought out post. It doesn't make the town council less Christian if they do not pray before each meeting. Will they respect the Lord less because they pray individually at a non preset time of day? I think this has more to do with the battle of wills than any religious ideology.

Although I'd have to say I would be all in favor of a pray for lower taxes.

E. Peevie said...

Why thank you, Jenn.

Boy George said...

Not only do I think that there "is no need for the believers on the city council of Wheaton to insist on their legal right to pray at the meeting, whether before or after the gavel," I think prayer as part of the meeting, or practiced by elected/appointed officials in their capacity as such, is unconstitutional. It has been held by courts that prayers would be government establishment of religion. It is entirely acceptable for anyone to pray for whatever they want, whenever they want, on their own time. But under federal and state law, it is not acceptable to include prayer as part of government business.

And on the subject of what to pray for, my #1 item is an honest, just, and efficient government. I'm not holding my breath.

Kevin said...

@Boy G - If your prayer were answered, so would Jenn's.

E. Peevie said...

Boy--Agreed, but I guess technically, before the gavel makes it not officially city business, which is why they can keep on doing it.

And as far as your prayer for an honest, just, and efficient government: Don't hold your breath, but don't stop praying.

Boy George said...

That business about having the prayer "before the mayor officially bangs the gavel" is a bit disingenuous, n'est-ce pas? Merely shifting the time that the gavel is pounded changes nothing. It's still putting religion into city business, which is unconstitutional.

Leslie Wolf said...

I agree with your post. I don't know where exactly the Founding Fathers or the U.S. Constitution would come down on this, but I think that town councils should refrain from prayer, as town councils are political bodies with real constituencies and such prayer might alienate or offend non-believers. By the way, Jon Meacham wrote a book on the separation of church and state that looks pretty interesting. It is called "American Gospel". You might want to check it out.