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A Prayer Before Legislating

Where church meets state.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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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.

Opening the first Continental Congress with prayer

Opening the first Continental Congress with prayer


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.

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