In admitting he did not have the votes for the fiscal cliff Thursday night, House Speaker John Boehner read a portion of the Serenity Prayer, adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous for inspiration: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Public prayer is treacherous territory for politicians, too often signaling far more meaning than they may intend. A prayer is only as good as the individual from whose lips it passes, and people can pray for evil or good, as suggested by the Koran, 17:11 – but an even worse tactic for political leaders are prayers that relay doubt or resignation.
Going on to describe “accepting hardships” and “trusting He will make all things right,” the Serenity Prayer does not suit a political issue like the fiscal cliff. The cliff is a political construct. If politicians created automatic deadlines for taxes and budget reductions, then they can alter them. By doing nothing, a refusal to vote for a tax hike for some, the House Republicans are raising taxes on all.
As a literary device, prayer can take on many forms and emotions – persuasion, desperation, conversation, relief, gratitude, joy, admiration, proclamation, even smugness, meditation, scolding, outburst, fear, chanting, doubt, resignation or failure. Or employing prayer in political speech can be perfunctory, rote and meaningless, as is the case with “God bless America” which has come to serve as a handy conclusion to State of the Union speeches in recent years. Only rarely do politicians use prayer to emphasize common ground and hopes and lofty moral goals without judgment and superiority.
More often, prayers from politicians and their supporters relay messages that God favors one side over another, as relayed by Mark Twain in “The War Prayer.” As a preacher rallies families of troops headed off to war, wishing them glory and victory, a stranger approaches the pulpit. He taps the preacher’s arm and takes over, shocking the congregation by proclaiming that he is a messenger from God: “Ponder this -- keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.”
Then he proceeds to pray for unspeakable horrors for the soldiers on the other side: “for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! “
Prayers, uttered in private, whether they’re seeking change in our own selves or others, are more subtle, poetic and pure. Parents dream, obsess, pray on shaping the young lives that are their responsibility, as described by William Butler Yeats in “A Prayer for My Daughter:”
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind….
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Another poem, “A Prayer in Spring” by Robert Frost, expresses private appreciation for nature and the year’s beginning:
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.
The mysteries of spirituality are best addressed with private prayer. Public, political endeavors are best served by the power of example, cooperation and effort.