Authentic prayer is a risky business. It has a way of forcing open realms in which answers are far from certain, set attitudes are questioned, and consciences are made uneasy. To pray, after all, is to acknowledge that no power on earth is supreme — not money, not weapons, not fame, not social standing, not romantic love, not even the US Constitution. All of these can be turned into idols, and often are. To pray is to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, whose possible “intimations” pertain to everything — decidedly including foreign and domestic policy.
“Religion,” in the words of the late scholar Ronald Dworkin, “is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview: It holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order.” What does such grandeur have to do with serving as mere bunting for public functions? A few formulaic words with heads bowed, akin to gaveling the room to silence, confirm all who know the code in their insidership. But it also does violence to the sublime mystery of real faith.
The separation of church and state should mean just that, and not only for democracy’s sake. The United States has a long history of conscripting someone called “God” into its worst mistakes, and American religion has been horribly corrupted again and again. For the sake of citizens who believe differently, or believe not at all, prayer has no place at the elbow of on-duty officials. But for the love of God, who transcends town meetings and the very nation, prayer has no place there either.