In the city of Key West, Florida, the local ministerial association refused to offer opening prayers at city commission meetings because “It does no good.” “Why pray for guidance,” one pastor reasoned, “when they (the commissioners) have already decided what they are going to do.?”
Those pastors have much in common with in common with some Marxist groups who would like to see all vestiges of religion erased from public life in America. Neither believes that prayer can make any difference. Thankfully, not everyone agrees.
In July 1983 the United State Supreme Court upheld the right of state legislatures to open their sessions with prayer. The court ruled that lawmakers in Nebraska did not violate the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of a state religion by hiring a chaplain. In most states, as well as the United States congress, each session of the House and Senate are opened with prayer.
In Michigan it is the legislatures themselves who usually provide the invocation. The prayers can range from the solemn to the sarcastic, and many are humorous.
State Rep. John Maynard prayed, “Give us wisdom and the patience to correct the Senate’s work.” Another pleaded, “Help us avoid adding to the perception that the state capital is an island of confusion surrounded by a sea of reality.” A prayer offered by a Republican representative was, “Teach us, Lord, that you are not a Republican. Comfort us with the knowledge that neither are You a Democrat.”
One of my favorites is the prayer of the Rev. Fred Holloman, chaplain of the Kansas state Senate. “Omniscient Father,” he intoned over the bowed heads of the senators, “help us to know who is telling the truth. One side tells us one thing and the other just the opposite. And if neither side is telling the truth, we would like to know that too. And if each side is telling half truth, give us the wisdom to put the right halves together. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”
It has been my personal privilege to pray for the opening sessions of state legislatures, county commission meets, school board meetings and more. That the same custom is not allowed in our public schools is a shame. The tradition of such prayers before governing bodies in America is as old as our nation itself.
The Constitutional Convention had been in session in Philadelphia for more than a month in 1787. The debate had been heated and futile. George Washington earnestly reasoned with the delegates, “It is probable that no plan we propose will be adopted.” He said “If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterward defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God.
At that crucial moment an elderly statesman slowly rose to his feet. It was Benjamin Franklin, and his speech proved to be the turning point in the convention. Franklin reproved the delegates for their neglect of prayer, reminding them that during the dangerous struggle for independence “we had daily prayer in this room for divine protection.” He asked, “Have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?
“I have lived, Sir, a long time,” the elder statesman continued, “and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
From that time on, each session of the convention was opened with a prayer led by a member of the clergy from the city of Philadelphia, imploring God’s assistance in the framing of the new Constitution.
Many people view public prayer before our governing bodies as just a meaningless form. I still believe, like Franklin, that “God governs in the affairs of men,” if we let Him.