Prayer Is Divisive: Are We Better Off Depoliticizing or Scrapping It?

old hands

The title of Katie Greenan's post for Religion News Service, "We need to depoliticize prayer" was hard to argue with, especially when the byline was "Politicians have made prayer a commonplace tactic to manipulate audiences." Still, I found myself wondering whether an alternative to depoliticizing it might simply be to encourage people to grow up and realize it accomplishes little of value. To her credit, Dr. Greenan clearly acknowledged that prayer can "prompt divisiveness." But she also perceives it as having "power to bring people together" and suggests that this claim is supported by her research.

Does prayer really bring people together? It sure looks like it does. We regularly see people coming together for public events centered on prayer, such as the unconstitutional displays we see every year in the form of the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Day of Prayer. It is hard to argue that this isn't an example of prayer bringing (some) people together. But considering the question more broadly, I'm not so sure. Prayer, like every other aspect of religion, seems to divide people into religious and secular groups. Some of us find prayer quite silly; some profess belief in its power. Thus, I am skeptical that prayer brings people together in any general sense unless we are willing to forget all about those of us who belong to the reality-based community.

If we have to keep public prayer around for some reason (and I am not at all convinced that we do), then I do agree with Dr. Greenan that it should be depoliticized. We should not continue to tolerate displays of prayerful pandering by our elected officials or those hoping to become elected officials. Such displays are inappropriate and should be discouraged if not outright disqualifying. The issue is not whether religious believers should be permitted to hold office but whether we will continue to tolerate the promotion of religiosity by our public officials.

Perhaps prayer does have some power to bring religious believers of varied faith traditions together. But even here, I'm skeptical. Now that Satanism is considered a religion, how receptive do you suppose fundamentalist Christians will be to including Satanists in their prayer-focused events and letting them have a turn at leading some of the prayers. This is not a hypothetical question, for we already know the answer. And while some Christian clergy have been receptive to doing something similar with Muslims, many of their "flock" are not so receptive. We have even seen disagreement among Christians about how and when to pray! Is this starting to sound divisive yet?

Best I can tell, the solution is to get prayer out of what Dr. Greenan describes as "our national life" and embrace it as a private exercise for those who wish to maintain it. Prayer is often depicted by religious believers as a meaningful, spiritually charged conversation between a believer and their preferred god(s). If that is the case, it has never been clear why an audience for it should be necessary.