This is a guest post by Alise Wright.
It’s graduation season, which means it’s time for another round of “Let’s show the world we’re Christians by praying at our public high school graduation ceremonies!”
The legality of student-led prayer tends to be a bit all over the place, but for the most part, it is protected under the First Amendment.
But I don’t really want to talk about the legality of student-led prayer at graduations, but rather the motivation. What message are we trying to send when we pray aloud in public spaces?
The most famous example of this year’s list of Christian students being unashamed of their faith was South Carolina student Roy Costner IV. The Pickens County School Board had banned prayers in the graduation speeches and he had written one that had been approved by the board. But after speaking with his pastor, he approached the podium, ripped up his speech, and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:9-13. He said it presumably to show his faithfulness to his Christian values that his parents instilled in him and that his pastor encouraged him to display.
However, when Costner spoke to his pastor, he should have been directed to an earlier passage in Matthew 6, which reads, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
This is a mere four verses before the prayer is given. Before Jesus said anything about what to pray, this was the instruction on where to pray. Not in public, but in private. Not to be seen by others, but as a show of faith that God will hear our prayers even if they are uttered into the void without any immediate feedback.
That’s not all. The prayer itself offers some guidance.
In the prayer, we ask that God’s will be done here on earth.
In John 15, these are the instructions to Christians, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
We are given clear directions. Love each other. Lay down our lives for one another.
Tony Perkins called the Freedom From Religion Foundation “the radical minority” in his response to this situation, and he applauded Costner for saying no to their repression. Radical is used as a pejorative and the assumption is that because they are a minority, their views shouldn’t matter.
But what about the radical majority? Why is it acceptable and even honorable to ignore so many of the teachings that surround and are a part of the verses being spoken? Why is legality the only consideration, when as Christians, we should hold ourselves to the standard set forth in our holy texts?
I do not think that people need to hide their faith. Something that informs your decisions and that is an integral part of your life is something that people should know about. And if prayer is part of your faith (especially if it is accompanied by action), that does not automatically have negative implications.
However, when prayer is used as a tool to build you up while simultaneously excluding others, the point has been missed. In that moment, we are not loving. We are not laying down our lives for our non-believing friends, but rather, we are using their lives as a tool to make ourselves look more important, which flies in the face of the numerous calls to humility.
If Christians want to speak to the “radical minority,” perhaps our first step should be to become radical in our majority status. But rather than making that radical leap by being more strident in our faith, perhaps radical could mean that we do what the Lord’s Prayer says. That we seek, not to glorify ourselves, but for forgiveness of our sins of pride and exclusion. That we bring about the unity of the Kingdom of God, not through rote prayers at a graduation ceremony, but in the daily laying down of our lives for all people, including the radical minority.
Alise Wright is the author of The Christian Guide to Atheists, a series that examines common misconceptions that Christians have about atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious people. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.