We recently observed a National Day of Prayer in the United States, a tradition we have been carrying on for a while now. Of the most recent observance, Diana Butler Bass (a seminary professor who will be speaking at Trinity Church in January) asked whether it hadn’t become a National Day of Fighting About Prayer. The fighting on this particular Day of Prayer revolved mostly around the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist, who was dis-invited to a Pentagon prayer event he had been initially scheduled to lead because of some ill-considered comments he had made about Islam – a faith to which some of the members of our Armed Forces subscribe. Mr. Graham was unwilling to apologize for his remarks, believing them to be appropriate. And many Muslims remain offended by what he said.
This smaller drama is a chapter in a much larger drama: the place of religion in public life. America values its institutional separation of church and state, but not so much the separation of religion and politics. And so we grope along trying to figure out what the balance should be between the two, and how religion should or should not play a public role. So we have chaplains for the House and Senate, and the legislative days open with a publicly led prayer, but graduation ceremonies in public schools must avoid any prayer all together. When you think about it, these distinctions don’t make much sense – Congress is not as diverse as your average public school, but still, not everyone in Congress is religiously on the same page – but, there you go. The fact that we don’t seem to have a consistent position on the public role of prayer is a reflection, I think, of the difficulty of resolving the tension between America’s religious legacy and our commitment to being an open and diverse democratic society.
It’s unfortunate that the National Day of Prayer should become an occasion for highlighting what a difficult time we have dealing with this tension. Of all things, prayer should not be a battle ground but a common ground. Rather than something that becomes a source of conflict and division, it should be something that brings us together. For prayer, in its broadest and simplest form, is simply the lifting up of the soul and the opening of the heart to the Sacred, no matter what name any of us may use to name the Sacred or what theology or doctrines we utilize to conceive of the Sacred. That lifting up and that opening up provide a connection not only to the Sacred but to our common humanity, as well. In prayer, the hopes, fears and aspirations of the human community are offered up, and those are not particular to any given religious tradition. They are the hopes, fears and aspirations that all of us share.
We live in a cultural time when religion in general has become a battleground. And there are 364 days in the year when that battle can play out, if it must. But perhaps the National Day of Prayer should become the common ground on which we can stand together as a human community. Those of no religious faith could use it as an opportunity for reflection. It could be a day when all doctrinal speech ceases, and we simply take some time to be aware of the fragility of our common humanity, and our united desire to somehow make more of our humanity than meets the eye.