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Prayer and Politics

August 21, 2012

I attended a prayer breakfast at the Illinois state legislative summit several weeks ago. What struck me about the event was its blending of Christian right language and inspirational civil religion. Unfortunately, that approach tended to alienate the international attendees, as well as younger members.

I reflected on my experience at the ChicagoNOW’s Daily Miracle, run by my friend (pseudonym) Sister Christian. Here’s what I wrote:

Reflections from a Legislative Prayer Breakfast

In a small, out-of-the-way conference room on the third floor Chicago’s giant McCormick Place convention center, I shook the hand of an older, energetic man. He was the organizer of the Illinois Legislative Summit’s prayer breakfast, and a veteran ministry worker with a para-church missions organization.

He told me that he had been helping the State Legislators host their prayer breakfasts for years. “Our goal is to start small groups and bible studies at all of the State legislative offices in the United States,” he said. They are on their way to doing it, too.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when a friend invited me to attend the legislative prayer breakfast, especially given the National Conference of State Legislatures’ guidelines on prayers, which states that: “Religious sectarianism at public events is not only a breach of etiquette, but represents an insensitivity to the faith of others.”

As we took our seats, a list of potential insensitivities flooded my head. Would we pray in Jesus’ name? With Congressman Randy Hultgren scheduled to give an “inspiring” message, would he cloak his talk in civil religion? Would he stain his publicly Christian commitments with a politicized agenda?

Among the crowd of about a seventy people — state legislators, lawyers and legal aides — were also a number of international attendees. I was seated next to one man from South Africa, and another from Canada. At a different table was a group from Germany.

Would the congressman’s message transcend political and national boundaries? This could be an opportunity to show how the incredible message of Jesus does not belong to any political party or nation, but rather that he has the power to change hearts and forgive sins!

Unfortunately, the congressman did not take that opportunity.

The inspirational message was little more than some quotes from Scripture attached to the typical language of the “religious right.” The congressman did not appeal to the message of Jesus. Rather, he gave moralistic parables from the founding fathers. He cited David Barton, the Christian historian who has recently been criticized by scholars (Christian and non-Christian) for over-emphasizing America’s Christian heritage. He framed his Christian commitments into an assumed political agenda. I couldn’t help wanting to apologize to the South African next to me.

Suffice it to say, the international attendees did not stay after the closing hymn of “God Bless America.” If I was not the only person my age at the event, the younger members probably would have quickly left as well.

Despite all this, I have hope that Christians involved in state legislatures can recognize how the Christian mission is much bigger than political goals. I have hope we will eventually move beyond truncated civil religion to the transforming words of Scripture.

I have hope of this for two reasons. First, because as writer Jonathan Merritt said in his book A Faith of Our Own, today’s Christians are distancing themselves from the partisan spirit:

“Rather than viewing others as political enemies to destroy, they are attempting to live out their faith in all areas of life and pursue a kingdom that is so vast and comprehensive that Washington could never hope to contain it. These Christians aren’t consumed with a platform or party or a policy; they are devoted to a person who emptied Himself to rule supreme over a new kind of Kingdom.”

Second, as Congressman Hultgren mentioned, he and many other men and women in state legislatures across the country are committing themselves to study Scripture together. The word of God has power to bring us beyond our party lines, as well as beyond our national borders.

As our leaders and authorities go about their work, we ought to pray for them because it pleases God and because he wants all people to come to a saving knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

We can also be demonstrating in our own lives how Christ’s love breaks through political and national boundaries.

I hope that as the Christians in the state legislature gather to encourage one another in the word, that they can see their work in the bigger story of God’s mission, bigger than partisan politics.

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