05/15/2014 02:06 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

The Hollowness of Public Prayer

Paul Morigi via Getty Images

There is much to criticize in the recent Supreme Court decision on prayer at public meetings in the case regarding the town of Greece, New York. The decision found such prayer acceptable because it was merely "ceremonial." Even such ceremonial prayers, in my opinion, do clearly violate the principle that government shall not endorse religion in general, or a religion in particular. Permitting prayer at such public gatherings disenfranchises those who come before them to do public business who may have no religion or a different religion from the one being invoked by the prayer.

Some have regarded the decision as a "victory" for prayer and for what Katherine Stewart has called the prayer lobby. But if it is a victory, it is a very hollow one. For persons in the theistic traditions, who still think prayer is a substantive discourse between those praying and the God to whom their prayer is addressed; saving prayer in public gatherings only if they are ceremonial is not really saving prayer at all. Prayer is a solemn event in the believer's relationship with God. It opens up a channel between the believers and the God who they believe is powerful enough to respond by divine action of some sort to the ones who are praying. Prayer, for most sincere theists, is not simply ceremonial or a substantively empty symbolic addendum to a secular agenda.

The Greece decision is of a piece with the Court's 1984 decision in Lynch v. Donnelly. In that case, the Court permitted a Christian crèche to be displayed on town property in Pawtucket, RI. It said that the once overtly Christian symbols that had given rise to the display of the crèche had become merely "passive" because they were in service to a higher secular end (promoting business in downtown Pawtucket). In both Lynch v. Donnelly and Town of Greece v. Galloway the prayers and the symbols of Christianity were deemed to be so inoffensive and secularized that their essential meaning had been eradicated and they could be reduced to meaningless ceremonial fluff. If that is true, then Christians who take their prayers seriously when they reflect the core beliefs of their faith should find it offensive when their prayers are reduced to ceremonial flag-waving.

If the prayers in the town of Greece were, as Justice Kagan put it, "explicitly Christian -- constantly and exclusively so," then clearly they should have been declared unconstitutional. And yet, if the one enunciating the prayer before the town meeting were speaking from an explicitly Christian perspective, one would have expected the prayer to reflect that fact. How does a Christian minister, for example, offer a substantive prayer representing his faith tradition unless that prayer reflects the core convictions of that tradition? And yet the more explicitly Christian the prayer is the more it should rightly offend citizens who do not share that faith. Kagan's either/or is right: Either the prayers are explicitly Christian and therefore inadmissible, or they are meaningless, ceremonial window dressing.

Justice Kennedy himself, while endorsing ceremonial prayers, admitted that some prayers would be unacceptable if they "denigrated nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion." This is a curious comment. Was Justice Kennedy suggesting that the government or the courts should be in the business of determining what constitutes an "acceptable" prayer at a public event? If the First Amendment means anything at all, it means that the government has no business determining the content of sectarian prayers. I think Kennedy's slip here is part and parcel of his belief, shared by a majority of the court, that prayers are acceptable only after they have been toned down, domesticated, pacified and voided of any substantive content. They provide an aura of sanctity to what is essentially a non-sacred secular event. They are in thrall to an overriding secular or non-religious purpose. Is that the kind of role the prayer lobby wants for the prayers of its religious tradition?

But if public prayers actually reflect something of the core beliefs of the religion from which they derive, they would fall directly under the condemnation Justice Kagan laid out in her dissent. Can you imagine a Christian pastor who accepts the principle of "replacement theology" (the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in God's preferences and that Jews must become Christians in order to be saved) actually praying for the conversion of Jews during his prayer? What if a rabbi should invoke the righteous wrath of the prophet Amos and condemn those in society who sell the poor for a pair of shoes and grind the faces of the oppressed in the dirt? What if a minister were to call the nation to embrace the kind of socialism/communism practiced by the early Christian Church as depicted in the Book of Acts? Those might be full-throated prayers, but hardly acceptable in a meeting called to do secular governmental work.

Justice Kennedy for one does not want such prayers at a public meeting. But he can only get what he wants if town officials censor certain kinds of prayer ahead of time. Is that a victory for true believers -- to offer only prayers that secular authorities think are acceptable? What happens to the conviction among many religious people that it is God's will, not the will of secular bodies that is to be done if public prayers are forbidden to mention the specifics of what they believe is God's will? When prayers are preserved at public gatherings by stripping them of any substance and eliminating their core convictions is that a victory truly religious people can find meaningful? Far better to prohibit any and all prayers, substantive and ceremonial, from public gatherings. Let the faithful pray before they come to the meetings or afterwards or perhaps silently during them. But don't confuse the sacred and the secular by exploiting the former to give sanctity to the latter.