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Why Public Prayer Is About More Than Culture Wars

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President Obama and religious conservatives are rarely on the same side of the culture wars. But a case now headed to the Supreme Court has forced a sliver of consensus between the White House and right-leaning people of faith on -- of all things -- praying in public, in Jesus' name. Perhaps this little truce in the red state/blue state divide can give Americans of all faiths, and no faith, an opportunity to think about why our pluralistic society is better off with uncensored, unscripted public prayers.

The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway, a lawsuit by two citizens against city council meetings in a small New York town opening with a spoken prayer by an invited clergyperson. The plaintiffs argue that the prayers -- especially since some of them were explicitly Christian -- represent an establishment of religion by the government, an establishment forbidden by the First Amendment. The case, now headed to the Supreme Court, represents the first high court test of the constitutionality of such prayers in nearly a generation.

As the legal briefs were filed with the Supreme Court, they initially took the typical trajectory of such disputes. Religious conservative groups -- such as my denomination -- defended the legislative prayers, while so-called "strict separationist" groups called for an end to "sectarian" prayers that would alienate citizens such as the plaintiffs, one Jewish and one atheist.

The Obama Administration surprised some by siding with the defendants in the case, and defending voluntary prayers by invited clergy at public gatherings. The White House's decision ameliorated the potential for a "red state/blue state" shouting match over this case, and made it more difficult for some to suggest that Town of Greece is some advance toward an intolerant "Christian America" zealotry.

But that caricature of a theocracy-seeking evangelicalism, hell-bent on establishing official up-to-code prayers everywhere "in Jesus' name" -- as easy as it is -- doesn't line up with reality, anyway. Conservative evangelicals don't want government support for our faith, because we believe God created all consciences free and a state-coerced act of worship isn't acceptable to God. Moreover, we believe the gospel isn't in need of state endorsement or assistance. Wall Street may need government bailouts but the Damascus Road never does.

In fact, most of us support voluntary public prayer not because we oppose the separation of church and state but because we support it.

After all, at issue in this dispute, is the supposed "sectarian" nature of these public prayers. Few suggest that any invocation at all is unconstitutional -- especially since invocations have been going on in such forums since the Founding Era. The problem is that these prayers are specifically Christian or specifically Jewish or specifically Jewish or specifically Wiccan, or what have you.

But that's precisely the point. A prayer, by definition, isn't a speech made to a public audience but is instead a petition made to a higher Being. For the government to censor such prayers is to turn the government into a theological referee, and would, in fact, establish a state religion: a state religion of generic American civil religious mush that assumes all religions are ultimately the same anyway. To remove the "sectarian" nature of prayer is to reduce such prayers to the level of public service announcements followed by "Amen."

Evangelicals pray in Jesus' name not because we are seeking to offend our neighbors, but because we're convinced that through Jesus is the only way we have access to God. We can't do otherwise. Likewise, a Muslim shouldn't be expected to speak of God as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" because one who could do so isn't a Muslim at all.

When we allow evangelicals to pray as evangelicals, Catholics to pray as Catholics, Muslims to pray as Muslims, Jews to pray as Jews, we are not undermining political pluralism in our democracy, we're upholding it.

That's why these prayers are not an establishment of religion. The clergyperson offering the invocation isn't an extension of the government. His or her prayers aren't state-written or state-approved.

If this is the case, why even bother with invocations, from multiple religious voices, in an increasingly diverse American public square? Such invocations serve to remind us that we are more than extensions of the state. Our consciences are accountable to a higher tribunal than any government. It's that sense of conscience and human integrity that has led this country to support minority rights, respect for opposing viewpoints, and a limit on the power of government.

On this, religious conservatives agree with the White House. Let's pray the Supreme Court recognizes that state neutrality on religion doesn't mean state hostility to religious expression. And we don't need a bureaucrat to help us write that prayer.

Click through the slideshow to see most and least Christian cities in the United States:

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