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Virginia's State-Sponsored Prayer, If Legal, Should Include Jesus

07/04/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Reversing a policy in place since 2008, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell restored the right of Christian chaplains serving the State Police to pray in the name of Jesus. And I, for one, think that he was right to do so.

As a rabbi and a member of a religious minority, I am likely to be largely on my own on this one. I am also fully aware that many of the Commonwealth's Jewish leaders have already voiced their opposition to the Governor's revised policy. But as a believer in maximal freedom for the greatest number of people, I cannot abide restricting people's right to pray as they see fit, even if those prayers do not reflect my faith.

To be sure, those who will celebrate their right to invoke Jesus should remain cognizant of Fredericksburg Rabbi Devorah Lynn's words regarding this issue. Quoted in the community leaders' letter to the Governor, Rabbi Lynn observed that "when you are asked to speak in public for a group of people of different religious practices, you need to think not of who you are praying to, but who you are praying for." She is 100 percent right -- about 50 percent of the story.

First, I wonder why worrying about those for whom one prays must exclude the One to whom one prays, as the rabbi's comment suggests. I also worry that her comment reflects a somewhat narrow understanding of Christian faith. Mentioning Jesus does not mean that Christians are not praying to God or failing to take into account those for whom they are praying. While invoking Jesus is certainly a different way of thinking about God as far as Jews and others are concerned, there are as many ways to think of God as their people who choose to do so, even within a given religion. Just ask a synagogue full of Jews at prayer!

It also bears remembering that many people cannot separate those for whom they pray from those to whom they pray. And why should they? Because their words will not resonate with their entire audience? That test would require that all public prayer be scrubbed of the diversity that makes this nation more religiously healthy than almost any place in the world. Not to mention that were we to fully implement that approach, we might need to pray without mentioning God at all, out of respect for the atheists and agnostics who might be present.

Personally, that doesn't bother me either, but I don't see religious and community leaders lobbying for that approach, so I don't think that's what they had in mind. It sounds to me like this all boils down to the amount of difference that people can tolerate. And ironically, what purports to be the more inclusive position here is anything but.

Genuine inclusiveness would embrace prayers in Jesus' name, humanist/secularist chaplains, pagan prayers, etc. It would invite anyone who could draw on their chosen tradition in order to serve people, including those who happen not to share their beliefs.

That doesn't mean that all of the words they use will reflect the views of each member of their audience/congregation. It means that the substance of their prayer will be toward values and ethics that all those gathered can share (e.g., peace, healing, love, etc.).

Of course, we need to assume that state-sponsored chaplains and their state-sponsored prayers are legal and appropriate to begin with. I know that is a big assumption for many people who would not concede either point. But since we are not going to solve that constitutional question here, we should focus instead on the governor's policy -- both the challenges and the opportunities that it presents.

Ironically, both Governor McDonnell's policy and the policy he reversed were based on claims of increasing religious freedom. Sadly, both sides imagined that freedom is increased by constraining individual expression. Talk about an oxymoron! But I guess limiting those who annoy us is easier than developing a real ethic of diversity that serves the left and the right, Christians and non-Christians, etc.

The central challenge for those who bring the full particularity of their faith to the public square will be to remain aware not only of how their prayers will hit the ears and hearts of those before whom they pray, but that for which they pray. The central challenge for the audience at any given moment is to open their hearts to the fact that there are many paths to that for which we all yearn, including prayer in the name of those in whom we may not believe.

In the end, real freedom of conscience and expression is not assured by how much of ourselves must be checked at the door before we come into a shared room. It is assured by making maximal space for all people to feel safe and secure in bringing as much of who they are, even, and perhaps especially, when it's not who we are.

For Jews and other minorities, that means becoming more comfortable with Jesus-talk. For Governor McDonnell and his Christian supporters, that means expanding the range of chaplains who are hired and the range of prayers which are offered in the Commonwealth of Virginia.