Sometimes someone has to say that the emperor has no clothes. Here goes:
There is no such thing as nonsectarian prayer.
“Nonsectarian” is a polite euphemism for “generically Christian,” and more specifically “generically Protestant, but probably acceptable to nearly all followers of Abrahamic religions.” That’s it; that’s all it means. It’s not an acceptable alternative to “sectarian” prayer because it somehow magically includes everyone. That alternative doesn’t exist.
It’s not possible to give a prayer that doesn’t exclude someone.
The act of praying is exclusionary: most atheists don’t pray.
The mode of praying is exclusionary: some people pray by putting on specific garments; some pray by dancing; some pray by kneeling; some pray by making burnt offerings; some pray by creating artworks; and on and on. Simply standing or sitting with bowed head and folded hands while someone says words is a specific kind of prayer that is primarily practiced by a specific type of religion.
It doesn’t matter that that group is broad and varied. It doesn’t matter that that group is hegemonic in this country. It’s a specific act associated with a specific religion, and if that’s not the definition of sectarian, I don’t know what is.
As for content, most prayers begin by stating who or what they are addressing. Some don’t; they remain in a prayer equivalent of passive voice by saying “We pray that…. and for ….” Theologically, this is a cop-out. It’s the equivalent of those ads you get from the local cable company that read “To our neighbor at…” It’s like playing Pin the Prayer on the Deity: stand with your eyes closed and pray in as vague a fashion as possible, desperately hoping that your words and intent will bump into a kindly power as they wing their way blindly into the universe.
Worse yet, it’s a cop-out that doesn’t fool anybody. At most, it allows people to substitute their own mental image of whomever or whatever they want to address their prayer to. But recognizing that prayer may be directed to many different sources which can’t be condensed into a unified thing is undermining the very idea of a universal prayer. It makes the exercise at best a simulacrum of unity – at the price of already having excluded people – and at worst a farce.
When a recipient is addressed, that by definition excludes people. Not everyone prays to the same deity, and plenty of people don’t pray to someone or something that can be addressed as simply “God” or “Lord.”
The inimitable Byron Ballard wrote about her experience with this in a different setting:
When that wonderful interfaith group came together on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center/Pentagon horrors, we tried our best to come up with a prayer that everyone was comfortable hearing and saying.
And we couldn’t do it. Well-meaning and well-mannered as we all were, there simply wasn’t a way of creating a generic prayer.
Byron is right. That group didn’t fail because they didn’t try hard enough, they failed because it’s impossible. The opposite of sectarian isn’t “nonsectarian,” it’s secular.
The only places where the myth of nonsectarianism can have credence are places where there’s enough similarity of religious belief and practice to render something like “God” meaningful. In intra-Christian work, nonsectarian prayer can exist; the Catholic priest and the Lutheran and Baptist pastors all agree not to to pray to Mary, not to say “sola scriptura,” and not to say “accept Jesus into your hearts right now.” That’s nonsectarian with respect to the subdivisions of Christianity. It’s still sectarian because it’s specific to the Christian sect.
If you’re in a group that is Christian by definition, go right ahead with nonsectarian Christian prayer. But once you start talking about – or praying in – public situations, open to all, then by definition in this country you are not talking about a wholly Christian population.
It’s true that since the Abrahamic religions are all basically monotheistic faiths that primarily address the divine in masculine terms, it is linguistically possible to write prayers that do not violate any of the fundamental tenets of these religions. I leave it to members of those religions to decide how comfortable they are with prayers like that on theological grounds.
But I guarantee you that if an Arab Christian started out a “nonsectarian” prayer addressing the divine as Allah, which Arab Christians have done for as long as there has been Christianity, the conservative echo chamber would explode with furor over how this supposedly “nonsectarian” prayer was actually evidence of a secret Muslim desire to institute shariah law. “Nonsectarian” has a lot of unmentioned implicit assumptions built in which highlight the ways that it is actually very sectarian, and very much about specific kinds of privilege and power.
When those implicit assumptions go unchallenged, it helps create a sense that the hegemonic group is more inclusive than it actually is. This backfires because it reinforces the power of the hegemons – who, as I observed above, will not relinquish power over the definition of the group that subtly privileges them above all other “nonsectarians.” Then the people who are still excluded – the atheists, the agnostics, the polytheists, the goddess-worshippers, and anyone who won’t play along with the pretend notion that everyone is talking to the same deity – are faced with an even larger, more powerful group.
The idea of “nonsectarian” prayer is nothing more nor less than an invisible set of clothes created and worn by hegemonic Protestant Christianity to excuse and defend it getting to have a privileged place in public discourse, most notably in the prayers given in the context of government business.
The threads are spun out of the artificially-created notion that there is something substantive which can be called “Judeo-Christian” religion. The cloth is woven in front of amazed onlookers by pseudo-generic Christians who have concealed their actual agendas in the frame of the loom which shapes the very warp and weft of their fantasy. It is dyed in the colors of imagined inclusiveness with the assistance of some members of minorities. And it is tailored to fit and flatter only the most privileged of the hegemons.
Others can either shape themselves to fit it – usually doing violence to the unique parts of themselves, their beliefs, and their practices – or they can explain how it doesn’t fit. But because of the wonderful consensus-inducing coating on the fibers, the fact that anybody who doesn’t fit will have parts of themselves show through the gaps in the invisible suit is always put down to their problems, rather than the nature of the suit, much less the fact that it doesn’t exist.
One of the reasons people are so reluctant to acknowledge that the
nonsectarian minister emperor isn’t wearing any clothes is that we all want to think that if we work at getting along, we can make it happen. So “nonsectarian” becomes the religious and political version of “Intent is Magic!” If you say a prayer nicely enough, everybody will agree with it.
But part of having an adult, realistic conversation about religion in America today is being aware that, as Stephen Prothero put it, God is not one. He’s not even a he. I’m honest enough to acknowledge that not everyone practices religion in the same way I do. I’m asking for others to recognize the same.
I don’t care whether you have the best intentions in the world; when you are put in a position of speaking for government and you make me feel belittled, othered, and excluded, I am hurt by it. That’s wrong, and that’s one of many things the First Amendment is supposed to prevent. Especially when that exclusion conveys the stamp of governmental approval.
It’s time for the idea of “nonsectarian” prayer as an acceptable, non-exclusionary form of government-sponsored observance to be recognized for what it is: nonsense.
The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
Nonsectarian prayer doesn’t exist.