Dr. Brian Lee is pastor of Christ Reformed Church, a small church in downtown Washington, D.C., which he founded six years ago. Lee knows something about a topic not ordinarily discussed at his church, that of “legislative prayer.” As we’ll see, he has his doubts about it.
In simplest terms, legislative prayer is prayer that opens meetings of legislative bodies; it solemnizes official occasions and seeks God’s blessings and wisdom for elected representatives entrusted with making the laws. It is one of the more venerable traditions in America, having commenced in 1774 when the Continental Congress met. Since 1789, when the first Congress convened, the House of Representatives and Senate have had chaplains, their foremost duty being legislative prayer. Today, most states and many localities provide for legislative prayer. The arrangements vary, as most prayer-givers are clergy who volunteer.
In recent years, however, the constitutionality of legislative prayer has been challenged, with a number of cases brought against local practices. One has reached the Supreme Court: The justices are now reviewing whether a town council’s practice of opening its meetings with a prayer violates the First Amendment’s ban on establishing religion. The town is Greece, N.Y., which shares a border with Rochester, and the case, in which the Court heard oral arguments in November, is Town of Greece v. Galloway.
In this case, and others like it, those challenging legislative prayer take issue with the predominance of explicitly “sectarian” prayers, which invariably means Christian prayers, identifiable as such to their legal critics by references in the invocations to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son,” and “the Holy Spirit.”
Which brings us back to Pastor Lee, a graduate of Stanford and Westminster Theological Seminary who earned a doctorate in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary and is licensed as a minister in the United Reformed Church.
Last spring, the House chaplain’s office asked Lee whether he might fill in as guest chaplain, opening a session with prayer. Lee agreed, on the understanding that he would offer “a Christian prayer.” Lee wasn’t trying to push on a contested legal point. Indeed, he told me, he was unaware of Town of Greece. Lee duly submitted his prayer to the chaplain’s office and heard nothing back; evidently it did not run afoul of the pastel guidelines that limit prayers to 150 words and insist that they be given in English. On April 30—the appointed day—Lee prayed to open the House, offering what he was satisfied was a Christian prayer.
It wasn’t easy for Lee, a theological conservative in the Reformed tradition, to decide that he could fill in as guest chaplain, and thus as a “legislative prayer-giver,” to use one of the lumpier terms found in the relevant literature. Lee regarded legislative prayer warily as an exercise in, or at least a contributor to, civil religion. As defined by the Dictionary of Christianity in America, civil religion today is “an alliance between religion and politics which transcends separation of church and state and permeates every level of national life,” its central beliefs being that there is a God, that his will can be known and fulfilled through democratic procedures, that America has been God’s primary agent in modern times, and that the nation is the chief source of identity for Americans in both a political and religious sense. For Lee, wanting nothing to do with civil religion, viewing it as “the enemy of the particular God,” there had to be a Christian—and not a civil religious—case for legislative prayer, if he were to give one.
The case Lee made, much of which he stated in a lengthy post at the Daily Caller, rests on an understanding of the church as a worshiping community that is united by creed and prays to a particular God. A pastor publicly praying in church uses the first-person plural pronoun because he is part of the community and is leading it in prayer. He thus may presume who the God is to whom “we” are praying and also what may be prayed for. That includes the members’ “salvation” and “everything [needed] for body and soul,” says Lee, there being no disagreement on these matters within the worshiping community. Nor about praying in Christ’s name.
The church, however, is not Congress, an obvious but critical point in Lee’s argument. Congress is not a worshiping community, and in fact there can be no religious test for office, no creed that members must confess. For that reason Christian prayer in which a pastor presumes to speak for all as he prays, using the first-person plural pronoun, has no place in Congress.
Still, while he could not pray in Congress as the pastor of a worshiping community, Lee decided he could pray in Congress as an individual. And as an individual he could pray for the blessings that God gives to all men in common, regardless of faith. Too, he could pray for those for whom the New Testament in fact instructs Christians to pray—civil authorities, that they might carry out God’s purposes for them, “to protect the defenseless, praise those who do good, and punish those who do evil,” as Lee said in his prayer.
For theological reasons, then, Lee altered the way he ordinarily prays as a pastor, while he also limited the scope of his prayer. He wound up praying in ways—such as forbearing from using “we” or “our”—that the legal critics of legislative prayer would have to credit.
But Lee was unable not to pray in Jesus’ name: No ostensibly Christian prayer, he concluded, could truly be a Christian prayer without that. Lee closed his prayer by asking God “to hear this prayer for the sake of the merits of your only Son, the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.” Not incidentally, legislative prayers containing language like that—manifoldly offensive to the critics—could not be offered if the Court were to decide in Town of Greece that the establishment clause forbids sectarian legislative prayer.
Media coverage of legislative prayer tends to focus on the political jurisdictions that sponsor the prayers (a town or city or state or Congress) and on those who challenge them, usually in lawsuits. Of less interest are those who give such prayers, and how they think about them. Few are as thoughtful and articulate about the practice as Lee.
Last week I spoke with him regarding his ambivalence about legislative prayer. “It’s not necessarily a good idea for our legislatures to open with this sort of prayer,” he said. “But given that they do, as a Christian, I think I can offer one,” meaning one like the prayer he gave—providing, of course, such prayer is still allowed after Town of Greece. The Court’s decision is expected by the end of June.
Terry Eastland is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.