Evangelical Christians have been complaining about not being included in various commemorations of 9/11, whether in New York City, Washington, D.C., or even here in Canada. But we shouldn’t be.
During my last year of high school (in North Bay, Ontario), I was asked by our varsity basketball coach to pray before our games. I did as I was asked, praying the usual athlete’s prayer for safety, good refereeing, our best performance, and the like. But I was surprised to be asked, and a little confused. Northern Ontario in the mid-1970s was already pretty secularized and most of my teammates didn’t go to church.
A few months later, at our graduation dinner and dance (the equivalent of our “prom”), the president of the student council asked me, with about a minute’s notice, to offer a prayer before the dinner began. I was class valedictorian as well as leader of the only Christian group at the school, so I didn’t feel I could refuse. So I prayed a generic prayer to “God” and asked for the most general of blessings — but my qualms were growing.
That’s the last time I’ve said yes. The University of Manitoba asked me a few times to pray at their convocation, when I was on the faculty there in the 1990s, as did the University of British Columbia when I came out here to Vancouver in 1998. And by then, I’d made up my mind. Prayer is a wonderful thing, and too wonderful to serve as a brief gesture to Canada’s past or a way of adding a bit of extra solemnity to a secular occasion.
Public prayer of the sort in question is a ritual meant to express a single sentiment on behalf of a unified group to a deity they all wish to petition. It isn’t part of an exchange of views, such as a university debate or a media talk show. I enjoy participating in such exchanges. Nor is it an educational situation — such as the world religions courses I myself have taught for more than 20 years.
Prayer isn’t supposed to be an opportunity to proclaim or teach your faith to others. Instead, prayer is a form of speech offered on behalf of everyone present to God.
Prayer in public secular events is like holding up a photograph of your mother and saying, “I’ve got Mom on speakerphone now, so let’s all tell Mom how much we love her as our mother and how we hope she’s proud of us for what we’ve done at university/work/war.” People would look at each other and then at you and think, “You’re crazy. She’s not our mother, and we didn’t do it for her.”
Worse than simply not making sense, prayer at public secular events marginalizes a lot of people: people who don’t believe in God; people who don’t believe in the particular kind of deity being prayed to, and people who do believe in God of that sort and don’t like the idea of an all-purpose prayer on behalf of an institution that otherwise pays no serious attention to God’s Word in its operations–such as the University of British Columbia or my high school basketball team.
Evangelical Christians of all people shouldn’t agree to pray at public events such as 9/11 services. Prayer is too great to be sprinkled on a secular occasion. That’s why I’m against formal prayers also in North American legislatures, city councils, school boards, and the like. These institutions, from start to finish, have no intention of conducting their business “under God,” with constant reference to the Bible and Christian tradition, seeking the Kingdom of Heaven in all they do. So it dishonours God to drag God in for a token celebrity appearance at ceremonies for institutions that otherwise ignore God all the rest of the time.
There’s no comfort to be had, furthermore, in claiming that “no one objects.” We Christians need to object: It’s our sacred rite that is being exploited to vaguely “dignify” a secular institution.
Furthermore, it is inhospitable to subject other people to a rite they don’t share. Do Christians want to have to stand quietly through a Sikh or Mormon or Hindu prayer if they work for a secular organization that happens to be dominated by those sorts of believers? Generally not, I’m sure. Should they have to? No.
So we Christians ought to model the kind of neighbourly citizenship that we hope our neighbours will extend to us whenever and wherever they attain the cultural power we have previously enjoyed. And may all Canadians agree to keep our public life full of people of various religious convictions and empty of all religious rituals.
This article originally appeared in The National Post.