Lord's Prayer not on trial, just the county's recitation

January 16, 2012

“Sussex: Lord’s Prayer goes on trial,” the headline read.

Sounds more ominous than it is. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t on trial. It’s the reciting of it before Sussex County Council meetings that’s in question.

In an earlier column, I wrote that it struck me odd for the county to contend the Lord’s Prayer wasn’t Christian, since the source, according to the Gospels, is Jesus.

Here I’ll look briefly at two popular arguments in favor of prayer at governmental meetings.

The first one says the U.S. is a Christian nation and therefore it’s proper to say Christian prayers before governmental meetings. This claim is asserted so often it’s often accepted as fact. But let’s look at the founding documents for Christianity and the United States government.

Christianity, of course, is based on the New Testament. There are many translations and versions of the New Testament, including the Jefferson Bible, which retained Jesus’s teachings but removed all references to the supernatural. In Thomas Jefferson’s version, Jesus was a great moral teacher but not a deity.

Now imagine a Bible that goes a step further and removes all mention of Jesus.

Such a Bible couldn’t possibly serve as the basis of a Christian religion, at least not one that would be accepted by other Christian denominations. (Mitt Romney is having trouble with some evangelical voters partly because they don’t accept his Mormonism as Christian, despite its acceptance of Christ as savior.)

Now look at our nation’s government, whose founding document is the Constitution. It makes no mention of Jesus.

Just as a New Testament devoid of Jesus couldn’t serve as the foundation for a Christian religion, neither could a Constitution that doesn’t mention Jesus serve as the foundation for a Christian nation.

After all, I doubt anyone believes our founding fathers forgot to mention Jesus. These were smart men. If they didn’t mention Jesus they must have had good reasons.

One reason, I think, was the extraordinary revulsion the Revolutionary-era leaders had for Europe and its endless warfare, much of which revolved around differing versions of Christianity. They wanted no part of such religious strife.

Another leading argument says local governments should open their sessions with a prayer because that’s the practice followed by the U.S. Congress.

For me, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of public prayer as empty ritual. When did Congress become a good example to follow? We live in an age when Congress scores only a slightly higher approval rating than bank robbers. Does anyone really believe that Congress, without public prayer, would actually be worse? Judging by the attacks from the left and the right, it hardly seems possible.

Not that prayer before meetings is wrong. I just don’t understand why members of county council can’t pray in private, as Jesus instructed. Perhaps Congress should follow that practice as well.

MINI-REVIEW: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and all sorts of terrific British actors. Last week I said “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was a little hard to follow. “Tattoo” was like following Dr. Seuss compared to this one and I read the book, though it was 25 years ago. The book was one of my favorites. I can’t say the same about the movie. If you go, pay attention and be prepared for abrupt changes in sequence.