by DAVID SWEET
The Hays County Commissioners Court is being threatened with a lawsuit because many of the invocations that start their proceedings have had specific Christian phraseology. I believe that the local expression of civil religion should be decided locally, and I appreciate the stance of the county commissioners.
Public invocations remind us that we are accountable to a higher authority. Our founding document says that rights are derived from the Creator – and are therefore absolute. As practiced by the founders (not all of them Christian), acts of civil religion promoted a sense of unity as a nation. Atheists would deny that it helps them feel the unity; however, there are certain goods that accrue to the majority that should not always be dictated by the minority.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses spent much time in the courts in the 1930s and ’40s protecting the right of their children not to be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They did not seek to ban the pledge for everyone. They taught their children to quietly dissent. Peaceful dissent from the majority’s practices – when necessary – is a powerful testimony to the confidence you have in your own beliefs. Why do we think that the First Amendment protects us from ever being offended by the practices of the majority?
On the other hand, when I have been asked to give the invocation for the Hays County Commissioners Court, I close my prayers with “Amen” or “In Your name, Amen” instead of my usual, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
I would not ask another minister to do the same if it violates his or her conscience, but I offer the following points for consideration:
1. The commissioners court is not a church gathering where everyone shares my views about Christ, or about how to relate to Him. It may actually trivialize the name of Jesus to lead a room full of people to pray in that name, when some present don’t revere it.
A prayer is different than an address. If a citizen wants to address every commissioners meeting during public comments with “Jesus is Lord!” that would be fine, because it is stating a personal belief – not officially presuming belief upon others. When I offer an invocation, I offer it on behalf of those present who, by bowing their heads, show a form of tacit agreement. I’m not just praying, I am leading others to pray.
Jesus condemned the public use of private forms of prayer. That reminds me that the context in which we pray is important.
2. As a Christian I am compelled to be kind to others. For me, that means not taking advantage of the fact that I have a captive audience to disregard the feelings or beliefs of others.
Being considerate of those on whose behalf I am praying, makes them more likely to trust Christ.
Hays County is predominately Christian. However, if that changes and we include clergy from a different faith in leading invocations, I hope that they will pray non-sectarian prayers. But I can’t expect them to do what I haven’t practiced. The Golden Rule is not just for children.
If a Muslim cleric were to pray a specifically Muslim prayer, I cannot in good conscience participate, and will dissent in some respectful way. So when I lead a public prayer, I want the greatest number of people in the room to feel they can participate without violating their consciences. Invocations at official public meetings should be a source of unity in a community.
3. Theologically, Christians always pray in Jesus’ name, whether we explicitly state it or not – because we bear His name. We state it often as a reminder about the basis upon which we pray to God. But it’s not an incantation.
4. Some think they would be untrue to their convictions about Jesus if they didn’t state His name in their public invocations. But there are literally hundreds of opportunities every day for us to proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord that don’t involve leading a captive audience at a public meeting to pray in His name. I think we should be more concerned about how faithfully we respond to those hundreds of other opportunities, than we are about our right to use this one.
5. A prayer in Jesus’ name at commissioners court doesn’t seem like much of a government endorsement of Christianity. But if non-believers perceive that it is – I don’t want to do it. The Gospel does not need government’s or politicians’ endorsement, and could be tainted if it gets it.
This should not be a Constitutional issue. Not everything that we think is wrong or offensive is unconstitutional. However, if more ministers offered invocations that are non-sectarian, I think the issue would be resolved.
David Sweet is pastor of the Hays Hills Baptist Church.
- Do pray: County court chooses to keep prayers at meetings 10/24/2012
- Private public prayer debate 05/12/2010
- Praying for an open mind 05/5/2010