THE BLOG
12/20/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

The Words of our Mouths

In a scene from TV's Grey's Anatomy, a surgeon tells family members he's done all he can, and the rest is up to God. He invites them to pray together, but they say they're not religious, and don't believe in God.

All right, he says, perhaps we could take a moment to hope together instead.

Town of Greece v. Galloway, the case before the Supreme Court, is not about personal prayer, which requires no court sanction and violates no legal rules. As the saying goes, as long as teachers hand out tests, there will be prayer in school. The issue is organized public prayer: a leader's call to prayer in a secular setting.

Such prayers follow a tradition dating back to the same Continental Congress that wrote about religious non-establishment, so the question of constitutionality is complex. But the separate question of sensitivity is more straight-forward: given today's pluralistic society, how specific or "sectarian" can a public prayer be before it is simply inappropriate?

There is also a question of lost chances: when people feel excluded, they stop listening--and an opportunity is lost to hope together, reflecting on shared goals and common dreams.

Religions are not all alike, but neither are they completely different. The more we focus on visions of the end of days, the more we differ. The more we focus on getting through the end of today--and making this day better for the hungry, homeless, and hopeless among us--the more we find common ground, and a potential for shared prayer.

In the Capitol for a ceremony honoring Holocaust survivors and liberators, I prayed "if the time has not yet come when we can see the face of God in others, then let us see, at least, a face as human as our own." My goal was to remember shared nightmares within a context of common dreams.

Some maintain that Christian references in prayer are always appropriate, because we're a "Christian nation." But even setting aside the Constitution's non-establishment clause, as early as 1796 Congress unanimously ratified a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli of Barbary that explicitly declares "the United States of America is not in any way founded on the Christian religion."

We're a unique civil society, not founded on any specific religion or faith, and public sensitivity to the beliefs and feelings of others is part of being...civil. It would be inexcusable for a rabbi to invite an interfaith group to pray for faith "despite the fact that the Messiah has not yet arrived." In a public setting, it's just as inappropriate--and uncaring--to offer prayers that assume he has.

There are challenges for all faiths regarding inclusive prayers, but there are precedents for such prayers from the Psalms to the Our Father, and theological solutions for every challenge. For example, since "God hears the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts," prayers can begin with inclusive language and end with silent words grounded in the leader's faith.

Non-religious military personnel with whom I've served--including many atheists who, despite the old saying, have spent more than their share of time in foxholes--prefer no mention of God, but still appreciate shared words of hope. (After all, "Humanist Chaplains" in foreign militaries participate in official ceremonies.)

Some friends who call themselves secular tell me they experience "degrees of discomfort," and prefer "faith inclusive prayers" that use broad references to God rather than narrow images tied to specific religious beliefs. Legal discussions sometimes refer to this distinction as ceremonial deism. It's a compromise between no religion and no-holds-barred religion -- and a way to use the approach to religious language in the Declaration of Independence as a guide.

In some ways that Declaration is a prayer--as is Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It's not clear, based on reporter notes and early written versions, whether Lincoln explicitly referred to God at Gettysburg, although "under God" is included in some later written versions of his remarks. Either way, his words invoke God's presence. I imagine many listeners joined together in prayer by saying amen. For all present that day--and for us today, as well--his words are a call for hope.

Not a bad model for public prayer.

Rabbi Resnicoff explores this issue in more depth in his paper Prayers that Hurt: Public Prayer in Interfaith Settings.