Prayers by the Book

The Louie Giglio imbroglio suggests it’s time for Baptists to re-examine how the government co-opts prayer at public occasions.

By Bill Leonard

In his 1646 work, The Dippers Dipt, Anglican clergyman Daniel Featley published a scathing attack on the “Dippers” rampant in England.

“Dipper” was an early name for Baptists and their practice of immersion baptism. Featley denounced such baptismal rites, including their implicit promiscuity since “both sexes enter into the River and are dipt … with a kind of spell containing … their erroneous tenets.”

Other objections included the group’s refusal to baptize infants, their failure to distinguish appropriate ecclesiastical boundaries between clergy and laity and their hesitancy to take oaths or hold public office. Featley deplored “Dipper” insistence “that there ought to be no set form of Liturgy or prayer by the Book, but only by the Spirit.”

A repudiation of prayer “by the Book” meant that Baptist conversations with God -- public or private -- did not conform to the rubrics of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as mandated by the Act of Uniformity, a law approved by Parliament in 1559, the second year of Elizabeth I’s reign.

Ministers who refused to conform to the Prayer Book were liable to fines and sentences of six months in jail for the first offense. A second offense brought a year’s imprisonment; a third required a life sentence.

Since dissenting “Dippers” refused to abandon their non-conformist practices, even in prayer, they faced continued harassment from the church/state establishment. Religious dissenters could neither pray nor participate in governmentally sanctioned events because their actions did not conform to the political/religious regulations of the day. Their prayers and practices were not “by the Book.”

In 21st century America, First Amendment-mandated religious liberty may be the order of the day, but praying by or outside “the book” can still create controversy. Such was the case when the Rev. Louie Giglio, pastor of Atlanta’s Passion City Church and leader of a movement to eliminate sex trafficking, declined an invitation to offer the benediction at President Obama’s second inaugural.

Invited because of earlier connections with the president and their shared desire to fight trafficking, Giglio was found wanting for a 1990s sermon critiquing what he called the homosexual “agenda” in America.

Concerns over those remarks and their lack of proper “vetting” led many to question the inaugural committee’s invitation. In his letter of withdrawal, Giglio acknowledged that while he may at times differ with Obama, “I will continue to pray regularly for the president, and urge the nation to do so.”

Giglio is not the first preacher to experience controversy related to sermonic comments and governmental sensitivities. During the 2008 presidential campaign candidate Barak Obama was forced to distance himself from his longtime Chicago pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when that preacher’s homiletical critiques of America were broadcast across cable and Internet. Neither Giglio nor Wright, clergymen occupying either end of the political spectrum, seemed acceptable for governmental-occasioned prayer.  

Truth is, in pluralistic America, multitudes of clergy from varying faiths have probably prayed or preached outside the boundaries of “the book,” disappointing or offending local or national coalitions, left, right or center. Prayer can be at once comforting, inspiring and communal, as well as divisive, disturbing and abrasive.

The invocation at this year’s inauguration was given by Myrlie Evers-Williams, civil-rights activist whose husband Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963 as a result of his fight against segregation.

Yet Evers-Williams’ presence was a profound reminder of the prophetic power of prayer in the Jim Crow South half a century ago. The prayer vigils that typified many civil rights demonstrations often generated brutal attacks, actions that galvanized the nation.

Although her inaugural prayer was sensitive and inclusive, in an earlier segregated America neither she nor her martyred spouse prayed “by the book.”  

These events provoke a very personal response, informed perhaps by the dissenting side of the Baptist tradition. Surely it is time to rethink the way state co-opts religion for prayer at public occasions -- local, state and national.

First, when the government feels it necessary to “vet” my theology before inviting me to pray at a state-sponsored event, I don’t need to be praying there in the first place. Whether clergy are liberal or conservative, mainline or evangelical, right or wrong, the government does not need an implicit Act of Uniformity to determine who should pray at its public proceedings.

Second, in religiously pluralistic America, prayers at government happenings can no longer be representative enough to reflect all the traditions present throughout the culture. There are simply too many diverse religious communions to accommodate every voice. As a Baptist, I cannot in good conscience participate in such an implicit religious privilege at the expense of other voices, so I won’t pray if invited by the state.

Third, if public prayer is necessary, might it involve a moment of silence during which individuals can pray as their traditions suggest, or choose not to pray at all? Then only God does the vetting.

Finally, these events may compel religious communions to reexamine their own participation in governmental prayer-moments, not because prayer is unimportant, but because it is far too important to be trivialized by political or media establishments.

These ideas are no doubt a minority opinion. Since at least 1646, we “Dippers” have never had much church/state credibility. As Daniel Featley noted, “so the presses sweat and groan under the load of their blasphemies.”

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.