The Lord’s Prayer and the Culture Wars

Asking that God’s kingdom come and His will be done is a supremely political act, a revolutionary declaration of independence from the powers of this world. But for that reason (among others), the Lord’s Prayer is not a weapon to be wielded in the culture wars.

To wit, the case of high school student Roy Costner IV, who prayed this most famous prayer this past Saturday in the town of Liberty, South Carolina:

On one level, it’s good to hear this prayer with fresh ears, since it’s been said so many times, by so many people that it can seem rote — a formula that, on the sleepiest of Sunday mornings, my mouth can recite even if my mind isn’t yet awake or my heart isn’t really in it. But given the context, it’s hard for me not to cringe at how this young man used the words of our Lord, to say nothing of the boisterous reaction of a crowd of adults who should know better:

Costner was the valedictorian of a public high school, inserting a Christian prayer into his commencement address in knowing contravention of a policy explicitly banning such prayers, in a district that this year has been targeted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation for what it sees as violations of the separation of church and state. From a CNN report on the controversy:

Lord's Prayer in Greek
The Lord’s Prayer in Greek – Creative Commons (Anton 17)

The foundation, over this past school year, has leaned on the district to keep Jesus and student-led prayers out of school board meetings.

Other concerns went beyond board meetings. This spring, the foundation’s staff attorney sent a lawyer representing the district a letter about complaints of alleged discriminatory hiring and religious promotion in another county high school and praise music being played in an elementary school classroom. The foundation said it learned of such practices by way of community members who are, in fact, not fully supporting prayer.

Costner said he set out to make a statement, one he hopes will inspire others to stand up, too, for what he sees as the good of this country.

“Taking prayer out of schools is the worst thing we could do,” he said.

If Costner went to a Christian school, there would be no discussion, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But in public schools, even in a place where there may be a religious majority, prayers such as his are clearly unconstitutional, she said. What’s more, she added, what he did shows contempt for school district policy and a lack of sensitivity for his audience.

While Gaylor called Costner’s act “aggressive… supremely rude,” I suspect that Dominic Verner spoke for many conservative Christians when he deemed it

…a defiant riposte to the atheist whining which had prevailed over his South Carolinian school district…. what is truly at stake in a prayer offered at one of life’s critical junctures—the weaving of man’s relationship to God within the cultural fabric of our common social life. In some small way, what is at stake is the survival of a Christian worldview.

Most of those commenting on that blog post at First Thoughts agreed with Verner, but two dissented.

As a Christian, I sympathize with the desire to acknowledge God at public, community events such as the high school’s graduation ceremony. But I’m uncomfortable watching someone offer a prayer that’s as much a public protest as a genuine speech to God on behalf of the group, especially with the loud football-type cheering at the end….

I would have concerns about the Lord’s Prayer being used in a triumphalistic manner. If it’s said as a kind of swashbuckling rebuke to atheists, this contradicts its content. It may not qualify as bullying, but what kind of message does it send about the nature of the gospel?

Likewise, conservative writer Joe Carter reminded Gospel Coalition readers that Jesus (in Matt 6:5-6) teaches us not to pray like those “hypocrites” who seek “to be seen by others”:

Tissot, "Le 'Pater Noster'"
James Tissot, “Le ‘Pater Noster'” (ca. 1890) – Wikimedia

This is not a requirement that we never pray in public—Jesus did so himself—but rather a reminder that we are praying to the Father, not for an audience of men and women.

Christians in America are justifiably frustrated by attempts to restrict our religious liberties. We should guard such freedoms carefully and oppose unnecessary infringement on religious speech. But there is a proper time, place, method, and motivation for such actions. We should consider our own motivations for supporting such prayers and ask ourselves some hard questions. What message does it send when we applaud a young man for defying legitimate authorities by citing our Lord’s model prayer at a graduation ceremony? Does it show others that we want to honor God or is it just another way to show our disdain for our culture war adversaries? Perhaps it would be better to give up public prayers altogether if all they have become is a form of irreverent protest.

What were Costner’s motivations? His father told CNN host Piers Morgan last night that when his son approached him days before the ceremony to show him the speech, he said, “Look, if you’re doing this for political reasons, don’t. But if you’re doing it because you feel led to do it and you feel this is a part of your speech, then I want you to do it and I’ll stand by you.” Costner himself has said that “I wanted to stand up for God. This is what God wanted me to do.”

His will be done… but to pray the Lord’s Prayer — whether at a public high school graduation or in the privacy of one’s own heart — is an unavoidably political act, though perhaps not in the way Mr. Costner understands the term.

If one asks that all other kingdoms give way before God’s, one is not engaging in an innocuous ritual of civil religion. If it were, it would be a mere formula, words said for public show, as by “hypocrites” — which is also the word Jesus uses later in the Gospel of Matthew to describe those who, far from seeking God’s Kingdom, instead “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matt 23:13).

If we seriously mean that we want God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done, we should pray for that in anticipation that all that makes us comfortable, safe, and secure will be overturned. We have to pray the Lord’s Prayer desiring that our will and those of our political leaders (past and present — “Founding Fathers” included) bend to God’s will, and knowing that all existing political, economic, legal, social, and other structures of earthly power — including those that we think of as “America” — constitute kingdoms that will crumble with the coming of the Kingdom of God.

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