Saturday, July 23, 2016

Prayer at the Republican National Convention

Pastor Mark Burns
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:5-6

Jesus was not a big fan of public prayer.

Even if we assume that he was talking about personal prayers spoken in public, rather than prayer spoken in the context of a service of worship, public prayer still problematic.

There is always the danger that it becomes performance.

The great preacher Charles Sturgeon liked to tell the story of an article in a Boston newspaper describing a prayer given at a public event as “the finest prayer ever offered to a Boston audience.” In public prayer, one cannot help being aware of the audience and there is always the temptation to play to the audience rather than pray to God.

Prayer at civic events is always problematic, and prayer at political rallies is even more so.

But still, when I looked at my Facebook page on Tuesday morning (July 19), I was stunned to see Diana Butler Bass’s posting of the benediction given by Pastor Mark Burns at the Republican Convention. After reading it, I thought it must be a hoax. But then I googled it and watched the video.

Both liberal and conservative commentators denounced it as “the worst prayer ever.”

Here it is:
“Hello Republicans! I’m Pastor Mark Burns from the great state of South Carolina! I’m going to pray and I’m going to give the benediction. And you know why? Because we are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ. And Republicans, we got to be united because our enemy is no other Republicans — but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
“Let’s pray together. Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump. We’re thankful that you are guiding him, that you are giving him the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party, to keep us divided and not united. Because we are the United States of America, and we are the conservative party under God.
“To defeat every attack that comes against us, to protect the life of Donald Trump, give him the words, give him the space, give him the power and the authority to be the next President of the United States of America, in Jesus’ name — if you believe it, shout Amen!”
On Thursday morning Burns was interviewed on NPR and given a chance to soften or re-frame what he said in the prayer, but basically, he doubled down. He really does believe that Donald Trump is the one who has been called by God to represent Christian values and principles.

At the close of the interview, Steve Inskeep asked him, “In a few seconds, do Donald Trump's values match your values as a Christian?” And Burns responded with enthusiasm, “Donald Trump, absolutely. There are three major points that Donald Trump is standing on that I support as a Christian. Number one, he supports, you know, the sanctity of marriage.”

“Number one, he supports, you know, the sanctity of marriage.”

Imagine, if you will, what Jon Stewart would do with that line. 

Public prayer is always problematic. But at its best it can remind us of our place in the universe. In Robert Bellah’s famous essay on American Civil Religion, he articulated the importance of believing in principles that transcend nationalism as well as sectarian religious doctrines. Referencing Lincoln as our best theologian, he argued for the idea that it is good for us to remember that we are judged by moral principles beyond our politics and beyond our national self-interest.

On the final night of the convention, the invocation was given by the Rev. Dr. Steven Bailey an Ohio United Methodist. I don’t know whether or not it was the best prayer ever given at a political convention, but it made my proud to be a United Methodist.

Read the full text of Rev. Dr. Steve Bailey’s RNC invocation:

Rev. Dr. Steven Bailey 
"Eternal God, we invite your spirit to come into this room and guide our actions tonight. Our faith traditions are united in recognition that you are the creator of all that is. You move on a scale and in ways we can scarcely comprehend but your grace and love reach through space and time to claim us, guide us, and make us your own.
"We are not here to ask you to bless what we have designed. We are here to ask you to transform us: To Make us better. Make us courageous. Make us tireless in seeking a more just nation for all who live in this land.
"We are united in our discontent for we know that our world can be made better:
 "-We know that it’s not right – that racism continues to wound and destroy the lives of many in this land. From judgments made in response to language or ethnicity, to inadequate schools that fail to serve their students, to incivility received at the grocery store or on college campuses; we know that we will only be a great nation when we are a good nation – when every citizen is fully vested in the promises of citizenship and fully shares in the opportunities of this great land.
"-We know that it’s not right – when lives are destroyed by addiction; when our justice system favors some and punishes others; when children and women are trafficked in the streets; or when people are denigrated because of whom they love.
"-We know that it’s not right – when we stand in the streets and shout insults at each other: When we attack those who risk their lives to protect us: When we harden our hearts to those we call the enemy: When we can no longer find common ground, upon which we can build a better future, forgive us O God.
"-O Eternal God, hope of all who call out to you; work through our leaders who have been entrusted to act on our behalf. Remind us that as we wield great power we also bear great responsibility. And remind us that each of our lives matters – our voice, our example, our values, and our service – may we each be one pivot point where the world swings from what it is to what it can be.
"We may call you by different names, we may pray in different languages, we may come from a multitude of perspectives – but tonight we share this moment in history – as we live together on this fragile planet. Give us grace, give us courage, give us compassion, and give us hope. Amen."

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