The perils of public prayer

According to The Washington Post, “State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz was on the ninth ‘Jesus’ of her opening prayer in the Pennsylvania statehouse when other lawmakers started to look uncomfortable.” No wonder.

In less than two minutes, Borowicz managed to set off a firestorm of controversy. “[The prayer] blatantly represented the Islamophobia that exists among some leaders — leaders that are supposed to represent the people,” said Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, a Muslim. “I came to the Capitol to help build bipartisanship and collaborations regardless of race or religion.”

And Rep. Jordan Harris, who identified himself as a devout Christian, criticized Borowicz for “weaponizing” her religion.

So what exactly was wrong with Ms. Borowicz’s prayer—and wasn’t?

Was it all those mentions of “Jesus,” instead of a nicely American generic God, as in the official motto “In God We Trust”? Was Representative Borowicz clearly aiming thereby to rile up her non-Christian colleagues?

Well, maybe. But I’ve learned not to attribute to wicked motives what can be accounted for merely by…difference.

If you have prayed with certain kinds of Christians, as I have, you know people who do pray in exactly this way, with “Jesuses” and “Fathers” and “Lords” and “justs” serving as verbal punctuation and intensifiers. If you’re not used to that style of prayer, it’s odd, even off-putting. But there’s no reason to assume it is dark with nefarious intent.

It is also perfectly fine to pray in Jesus’s name in public if you’re a Christian who has been asked to pray in public. If I’m a Vaishnavite Hindu and I pray to Lord Vishnu, you likely would get exactly what you asked for: a sincere prayer to (my) God.

What other god do you expect me to pray to? There is no God-in-general, convenient as that would be for some people and some agenda. When you ask people to do something, expect them to do that thing.

What isn’t okay, however, is to be able reasonably to foresee that your prayer is not going to accomplish what prayer in that particular context is supposed to accomplish—and going ahead anyway. In this particular moment in American cultural history, when respect for difference is in such short supply, should a legislator praying before a legislative session lean so hard on her particular deity? Is such an emphasis likely to initiate a legislative session in a cooperative mode? Could emphasizing common ground, instead of “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” be a more winsome approach? 

I grant that people of intelligence and good will might argue about those questions. What seems inarguable, however, is this politician’s decision to politicize her prayer. When she moves from invoking standard American heroes such as the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln to thanking God explicitly for President Trump, she looks meanly partisan.

When she moves from there to link the USA’s welfare to its (unqualified) support for Israel, she crosses a line. What line? The same line that would be crossed if one of her Muslim colleagues were to pray and thank Allah for Hamas—or ISIL. Or one of her Hindu colleagues were to thank Lord Vishnu for the BJP and its violent crusade to turn India into a Hindu monoculture.

I’m on record as objecting to prayers at official events in Canada (and, by extension, the United States). If a legislative body isn’t going to pay attention to God’s Word in its business, I object to its prefacing its business with (meaningless) words about God.

But if you accept an invitation to pray during such an event, you simply cannot exploit prayer—of all things!—for political advantage. Thumbing your nose at your opponents and value-signalling to your base is just grossly cynical. It’s profaning the sacred. It’s certainly not loving your neighbour as you love yourself.

And heaping up “Jesuses” isn’t going to make that okay.

19 I like it
0 I don't like it

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).