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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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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.  

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