McClellan: Public prayer is divisive, not inspiring - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

McClellan: Public prayer is divisive, not inspiring

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Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.

Posted: Friday, November 15, 2013 4:30 pm | Updated: 4:10 pm, Tue Nov 19, 2013.

I like prayer. I often pray, at least once a day, likely more. Our family prays each day at dinner, as we have for generations. We’ve discussed prayer over the years, that prayer is at least as powerful for those who pray as for those who are the subjects of prayer, that prayer helps us cope with those difficult times and celebrate the beauty in our lives.

I pray aloud — in church. As do many others in our congregation each Sunday, both collectively, and if inspired, individually.

But I disagree, vehemently, with fellow Tribune columnist Linda Turley-Hansen’s argument that “public prayer” is an important part of our culture.

Her column, of course, is the result of the Supreme Court case Town of Greece v. Galloway, wherein two Greece, N.Y., residents sued the town over its public prayer prior to City Council meetings, the residents arguing that the prayer has a chilling effect on those who aren’t Christian, particularly since the prayers are overwhelmingly Christian in nature and led by Christian ministers. The Justices gave both sides the usual Supreme Court once-over, but the city’s attorneys were challenged by both the conservative and liberal justices as to what an “innocuous” public prayer would look like.

Turley-Hansen argues, of course, that prayer at council meetings and other governmental events are part of our history, as we know that Congress each day begins with a prayer. She argues that those in opposition to her are really attacking Christianity, that they “fear Christian practices.”

Well, here’s one Christian who doesn’t fear Christian practices but who does believe prayer prior to public meetings only cheapens the power of that practice. As, I believe, does the Bible.

In fact, I believe Jesus has this to say about public prayer: “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).

Of course, it’s always problematic to quote the Bible, since if you look carefully enough, you can often find something to contradict what you quote. But doesn’t Jesus have it right here, that for some anyhow, public prayer is “so that people can see them”?

Equally true is this: We live in a much more eclectic culture than the Founders did, or even our parents did. And so, to ensure no one culture or religious practice is offended, our public prayers tend to be generic in nature.

So when I go to a Town Council meeting in Gilbert, I hear a very generic prayer, one that might suit me or might not, but it clearly has no context, unlike in church, where prayer led by the pastor incorporates the Bible readings of that week, the theme of those readings, giving us context and thought.

Beyond that, why isn’t a moment of silence sufficient? Again, from Turley-Hansen’s recent column: “Prayer is one form of meditation, introspection which also utilizes natural laws. Prayer contains many meditation qualities, especially the clearing of the mind: Meditation (a moment of silence) apparently is viewed as so benign that atheists and non-Christians are unthreatened. Or, maybe meditation is viewed as a practice, which does not threaten political power. Which, brings us to the possible agenda of complainers and those who desire to wordsmith public prayers. Just as long as no higher power is mentioned.”

Turley-Hansen’s comment begs the question: If prayer is a kind of meditation, isn’t private, individual, silent prayer more meaningful to us? If I’m moved to pray during a moment of silence, that has meaning to me. If an official or minister performs some generic prayer, of what meaning does that have? Doesn’t public prayer, in fact, cheapen the power of prayer?

After all, Arizona schools are required to have a moment of silence during their days. At times I used those to clear my head for the coming class, but at other times — when the inspiration hit me, I said a silent, meaningful prayer, much more significant to me than one on the intercom system led by a teacher or administrator, as public schools in America often had when I was a kid.

No, Turley-Hansen’s argument that we should encourage public prayer actually works against her, forcing us to listen to something so antiseptic to ensure no one is offended. Which, in itself, is offensive. Prayer should be powerfully meaningful to us as individuals, individuals inspired — if we choose — to communicate with our God. I’m afraid public prayer is anything but that.

• Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.

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