It’s not prayer, public or otherwise, that divides us. At least it doesn’t have to. It’s our inability to be honest with each other about what we really believe and how to make room for the beliefs of others. Without that ability, we will keep beating the drums of the culture war, as we are right now over the case of a gay pastor’s prayer and the response to it. That’s the real fallout from Rev. Scott H. Jones’s offering an opening prayer for the Oklahoma House of Representatives and the subsequent vote over whether or not to enter his prayer into the official record of that session.
Once again a sensitive issue is being used to rally the faithful, divide us more sharply, and give everyone a place to hide from the truth. Sadly, that is how we handle most issues of religion in American public life, especially when it comes to prayer. While I may side more with the appropriateness of his being asked to offer the prayer, and with it having been entered into the record, nobody in this story behaved a s well as they might have. And for that, all of us living in this country, regardless of our position on this issue, pay the price.
Let’s start with Rev. Jones. Did he really need to publicly acknowledge his partner?
The fact that many of us think he should be able to do so does not mean that he should have — at least not without seriously asking how it would impact those in the chamber who were already being stretched by the presence of a gay pastor offering the prayer. In the end, Rev. Jones failed by virtue of asking those he was leading to be where he already was, instead of reaching them where they were and helping them to get a little closer.
The same can be said for Rep. Al McAffrey, Oklahoma’s only openly gay legislator, the man who invited Jones to pray and who made the motion to enter the prayer in the record. Why this one and why now? He wanted to prove a point. And however good the point may be, that is precisely how faith should not be used. Healthy faith puts people ahead of ideas. And by forcing this issue, Mr. McAffrey did the reverse. Of course, he was not alone.
Rep. John Wright objected to entering Rev. Jones prayer, leading to a vote which concluded with a 64-20-17 decision in favor of the prayer. The fact that they voted is not a bad thing. In fact, that’s the best part of the story. The idea that people are willing to hear a prayer even if they are personally opposed to either it or the one who offers it, is a triumph for the genuinely pluralistic use of religion in a public institution.
But why did Rep. Wright object this time? He said it was because of his faith, which initially seems like a reasonable answer. But it’s hard to believe. I highly doubt that every previous prayer offered before the Oklahoma legislature falls in line with every detail of Mr. Wright’s theological views.
How is he with Catholics? What about Jews and Muslims who do not believe that Jesus is the messiah? Have they offered prayers? Did Rep. Wright object to those prayers being entered into the record? If not, his objection based on “faith” reduces his entire religious identity to objecting to the presence of gay people’s prayers in the legislature record — hardly a position of which to be proud, no matter what one believes about gayness and Christian teaching.
Imagine if instead of simply objecting, Wright had risen and said that he was feeling vulnerable, having been pushed as far as he could go. Imagine if Rep. McAffrey had not asked that the prayer be entered into the record but thanked his colleagues for achieving a new level of inclusivity. Imagine if Rev. Jones had acknowledged not his partner, but the fact that not all could be acknowledged at this time and prayed that even greater inclusivity would one day be achieved. Imagine if all of us could be that honest with each other about the issues which divide us.
The issue here is not really who prays, or what they pray, or if we should have prayer at all. The issue is how any leader, or any audience member for that matter, standing as part of any assembled public body, considers the needs of those who do not share their beliefs as carefully as those who do.