Should prayer be part of our civic ceremonies?

The question comes up routinely in America, from town council meetings in Upstate New York to openings of legislative sessions at the Capitol. President Biden’s inauguration was no exception. Biden’s address itself was religiously restrained; he mentioned God just four times, once in quoting the Pledge of Allegiance, once in giving his word “before God and all of you” and twice in a closing request that God bless America and the troops.

But before the address, Jesuit Father Leo O’Donovan delivered an invocation, directed not to the audience but to a “gracious and merciful God,” “Creator of all,” “Holy mystery of love.” And after the inaugural address, AME Rev. Silvester Beaman gave a benediction that was equally divine, a supplication to “dear glory, majesty, dominion and power forever.”

I guess I’m old-fashioned, but I still think we should keep church and state separate and that the government has no business establishing any religion, even a vague one. If it’s got God in it, it counts.

O’Donovan and Beaman quite rightly delivered nonsectarian prayers — no Jesus, for example — so as to appeal to the widest number of believers. But that still leaves out nonbelievers. About 26 percent of Americans call themselves atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” And plenty of those who are something in particular still might not particularly believe in a Supreme Being. Or they might, but not in a “Hurry: We need your help!” kind of way.

It’s not about being offended. I’m an atheist, but God talk doesn’t usually bother me. Hearing a grown-up ask God for something should sound as strange to me as hearing him plead with Santa or Superman. “We seek your faith, your smile, your warm embrace,” should sound weird. But it doesn’t. I was raised in America, where pledging allegiance “under God,” spending money stamped with “In God We Trust” and ending speeches with “God Bless America” are so automatic that “gracious and merciful God” sounds like “blah blah blah.”

But is “blah blah blah” what we want from our ceremonial language? Leaving aside constitutionality — as, unfortunately, the courts continue to do — unless every American actually believes that we need to ask a supernatural being for help, then appealing to God robs these prayers of their rhetorical power. Either because they sound meaningless or because what they mean, fundamentally, is that He is the agent of change, not we.

Beaman and O’Donovan said beautiful things about our responsibilities to one another, about caring for the least fortunate and becoming light for the world, about giving justice to the oppressed and using our resources for the national good. But their prayers made it clear that God was the key to our aspirations as a nation. “We come before you in need — indeed on our knees,” said O’Donovan. “We need you, for in you we discover our common humanity,” said Beaman.

If the point of these prayers is literally to ask, as a group, for intercession by a Supreme Being, fine — but please leave that religious ritual out of my civic ceremony.

If instead the point of the prayers is to inspire me, to grip my mind and heart, to make me see something new or feel something powerfully, if the mission is to use words to make eternal truths shimmer before me, then please leave God out.

And yes, you can write a prayer without Him. Proof of that came just before the benediction, in “The Hill We Climb,” the inaugural poem by Amanda Gorman. Delivered with clarity and conviction, it enlisted scripture both biblical (Micah) and theatrical (Miranda). It acknowledged the darkness that surrounds us and called on us to press on, to face the many tasks that remain to us as Americans:

“When day comes, we step out of the shade / Aflame and unafraid / The new dawn blooms as we free it / For there is always light / If only we’re brave enough to see it / If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Gorman’s poem didn’t mention God. But in its incantatory power and its grandeur of vision, in speaking to and for each of us congregated in that moment, it was a prayer indeed.

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