Thursday, September 24, 2009

Prayer in Public Life

I've been doing a lot of reading about prayer and mental health recently because I might be doing my dissertation on the topic. It's been quite interesting, especially how spending so much time thinking about something makes it seem to pop up all over the place. For example, there's an initiative to have large numbers of Muslims gather on the national mall to pray for the nation on Saturday. This week will also witness "See You At the Pole" prayer sessions led by students at public and private schools nationwide. Recently a principle was facing jail time for offering prayer at a meal during a school function.

These stories and similar ones got me thinking about a topic I've wanted to write about for a long time. This is a tendency in some circles to insist that public prayer use 'politically correct' language.

I recall a national event being covered by the media where a journalist found it interesting that a Christian pastor had prayed in the name of Jesus Christ. I found it interesting that anyone would find that interesting. How else would a Christian pastor be expected to pray? The implication of the journalist's commentary was that this pastor had done something problematic if not offensive, relative to non-Christian Americans.

As a Baha'i and a frequent participant in interfaith activities, I appreciate the desire to encourage religious expression that has a spirit of inclusiveness. I'm always grateful when I hear someone strive to do that as they pray at a public gathering. However, I never expect it and certainly would not demand it or criticize them for not doing so. If I did, I would be crossing the line between a legitimate desire for inclusiveness and an illegitimate desire to impose my values on that person. How ironic it would be that in an effort to be inclusive, I should tell someone else they have to pray my way.

The way a person prays should be a matter of conscience, not political correctness. Prayer said under pressure to conform to the expectations of others risks losing its very character as a sacred act. Even in public life, prayer is ultimately deeply personal. That needs to be respected.

"Reveal then Thyself, O Lord, by Thy merciful utterance and the mystery of Thy divine being, that the holy ecstasy of prayer may fill our souls - a prayer that shall rise above words and letters and transcend the murmur of syllables and sounds - that all things may be merged into nothingness before the revelation of Thy splendor" (Compilations, Baha'i Prayers, p. 69)