A divided Supreme Court said today that a municipality to beginning its business meetings with prayer did not violate the U.S. Constitution. For ten years a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., has followed an unwritten policy of asking a member of the local clergy to give a prayer as the first item of city business. The prayer exercise was rotated among willing clergy from houses of worship in the town. The board did not review the prayers in advance, but along with others in attendance heard each prayer for the first time at the start of the meeting.

The lawsuit was brought by two local citizens who attended numerous board meetings. Their complaint was that many of the prayers were given "in Jesus' name" or were otherwise explicitly Christian, and that the clergy leading the prayers would often begin by inviting all present to "join with me" or similar words, as well as suggesting a posture of bowed heads and folded hands. The remedy requested by these two complainants was surprising. They did not ask the court to do away with the prayers altogether. Rather, if there was to be prayer, they claimed the law required that it be "nonsectarian." I will have more to say about that odd choice for a remedy, but it immediately placed their lawsuit on poor footing.

The court's ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway is being widely celebrated by evangelicals as a victory. Is it? Or have we rendered unto Caesar a franchise to pray, otherwise thought to be a privilege of conversing with God that we ascribe to his followers? Early in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey draws our attention to Satan's temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In turning down the three temptations, observes Yancey, Jesus declined to invoke the three greatest powers at his disposal: miracle, mystery, and authority. However, from the time of Emperor Constantine forward the church claimed for herself all three to build Christendom, a development that we now look back on with regret. Ecclesiastical authority was acquired by alliance with the crown. Only years later, well after the Reformation, did disestablishment free the church by releasing the government's ties on her. In turn, the church fell back on her own resources, bringing a welcomed return to the practice that the church be supported only through the voluntary contributions and willing service of those who find refreshment in her teachings. As Yancey concludes, by going to the Cross Jesus made himself weak and let humans respond to his love. Thus any use of the machinery of government to add power and prestige to Christ's gentle invitation is not his way. While the prayer policy of the town board does not begin to approach the persecution of religious nonconformists at the height of medieval Christendom, the government-sponsored prayer draws upon the trappings of officialdom and the city's patronage.

Article continues below

The question that ought to have been on the Supreme Court's mind is not whether the prayer policy was administered to favor the religion of the invited clergy. That puts the focus on the audience's response, which will vary by time, place, and people, rather than on the resulting relationship between church and state. The principle of voluntarism means that government has no role in actively supporting explicitly religious activities such as prayer—for that is not within Caesar's rule and realm but that of believers.

So what's the harm of government prayer? First, it leaves a few deeply resentful, with hearts hardened to Christianity. One need look no further than the two complainants here. Many more of our fellow citizens are confused about evangelical methods and motives when we hitch our wagon to Caesar, and they are misled about the nature of Christ's invitation and a person's freedom in response to him. Moreover, because what goes around comes around, municipalities in less friendly territory than Greece, New York, will seize this newly approved legality and use it to offer up invocational prayers that will be unrecognizable to evangelicals. Already this is occurring in the Town of Greece, where a Wiccan priestess has offered up prayers to Athena and Apollo. An atheist has also petitioned, by appealing to "inclusion," that she be allowed to take a turn at rendering the invocation. She did so, not because she wanted to pray, to protest the city policy by rendering it absurd. The Supreme Court's ruling means we will be seeing more of this mischief.

A second harm is that evangelicals are mistrusted. Given the deep differences among Americans, evangelical voices have rightly appealed to pluralism as the means for citizens to coexist peacefully, respecting disagreement while working together on those things that do unite us as a nation. But this principled pluralism is made to be a lie when evangelicals employ the state to promote Christian prayers.

The third harm flows from an overly cozy relationship between government and willing local clergy. That the Christian faith receives succor from the city's prayer policy makes it less likely that the church will raise its prophetic voice to criticize the town board when it undertakes bad policies or its officials misbehave.

Article continues below

A fourth harm is the fostering of civil religion by the wedding of piety to patriotism. Civil religion is the confusion of the Christian faith with love of country; an elevation of certain ceremonies, traditions, and habits of a nation to the level of the sacred. This pseudo religion can have a powerful allure, especially to those who have a strong sense of patriotism, a good thing in itself, but not when uncritically mixed with the Gospel. It is a contradiction, of course, to say that the state must avoid establishing Christianity, as our Constitution does say, but then to blink at the establishment of this "common ground" faith.

Some defend the court's ruling as protecting religious exercise for Christians. But free exercise—or freedom of speech, for that matter—has never meant that a people of faith have a right to capture the engines of government and put them to work on behalf of their confession. Still others defend the court because municipal prayer makes Christian belief overall more plausible. This was an impulse in the past, but we have moved beyond a time when evangelicals among sought to make Christianity more marketable buy conforming to the dominate culture. In any case, what shouldn't be done is to harness the government to do the job of the church.

While the Supreme Court's handiwork in Town of Greece v. Galloway deviates from the principle of law that regards religion as a voluntary matter, there is some good to come from the case. The court rejected the complainants' invitation to preview the prayers and allow only those that were "nonsectarian" while excluding all others. Government should never have a role in sorting out "approved" prayers from "disapproved" prayers by whatever criteria. More deeply, the nonsectarian prayers advocated by the complainants are a phony pluralism, a vague theism not actually practiced by anyone. Their promotion of nonsectarianism parallels civil religion, a least-common-denominator faith that our Constitution no more allows to be established than the real thing.

None of this is to suggest that Christianity is indifferent to government. Thick passages in Romans 13 and First Peter 2 speak to the role of the state. However, distinguishing between a nation whose political life should welcome the deepest convictions of its citizens, on the one hand, and putting the very practice of those convictions into the hands of the nation's government should not be difficult. Christians should be keen to learn from past church-state mistakes and going forward to be attentive to getting things right. In politics as in all things, it's about imitating Christ.

Article continues below

Carl H. Esbeck is the R.B. Price Professor of Law at the University of Missouri.

See also today's editorial on the Supreme Court decision, "Why We Pray Before Public Meetings (and Let Pagans Do, Too)."