The Supreme Court gave limited approval on Monday to public prayers at a New York town's board meetings, citing the country's history of religious acknowledgment in the legislature.
The 5-4 ruling came in yet another contentious case over the intersection of faith and the civic arena. It was confined to the specific circumstances and offered few bright-line rules on how other communities should offer civic prayers without violating the Constitution.Conservatives are hailing this decision as a victory for religious freedom while liberals are decrying it as an unwarranted intrusion of religion into state matters as well as an intolerant act in reference to those who believe differently.
In actuality, I am quite unconcerned about the SCOTUS ruling one way or another, even if they had decided differently. I dislike public prayers because it is just one more form of civil religion in which we pay a passing nod to what Stanley Hauerwas refers to as "the god of ultimate vagueness." It is a god we have created in our own dull and boring image, a god who keeps his distance while we continue to live our lives as practical atheists. I find such a god not only to be uninteresting, but idolatrous because it is not the God revealed to us in the pages of the Bible.
In his book, Prayers Plainly Spoken Stanley Hauerwas tells of the time he was invited to offer a prayer at a luncheon honoring a member of the Duke University faculty. He writes,
"Since I have harshly and repeatedly criticized civil religion, I first turned down the opportunity to pray to a vague God who cannot be named as the Father of Jesus Christ. I knew such a "public" occasion, involving people of many faiths would have people expecting just such a civil religious address of God. but then I reconsidered and I called back saying I would do it. It took me all morning to write the prayer (p. 47).This is the prayer Stanley offered:
God, you alone know how we are to pray to you on occasions like this. We do not fear you, since we prefer to fear one another. Accordingly, our prayers are not to you but to some "ultimate vagueness." You have, of course, tried to scare the hell out of us through the creation of your people Israel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are a subtle, crafty, stiff-necked people who prefer to be damned into vagueness. So we thank you for giving us common gifts such as food, friendship and good works that remind us our lives are gifts made possible by sacrifice. We are particularly grateful for your servant Reynolds Price, who graces our lives with your grace. Through such gifts may our desire for status and the envy status breeds be transformed into the service that glorifies you. Amen (pp. 47-48).After Hauerwas' prayer, the next year, they omitted the opening prayer and now have a moment of silence.
At some point, we need to understand that such public prayers to the god of ultimate vagueness are nothing more than exercises in idolatry.