Of Conventions, Prayers, And Church

The Importance Of Distinguishing Sacred And Secular

Both the opening and closing of last night’s events are a good argument for doing away with public, shared prayers in such, common, secular events. It’s not that delegates to political conventions should not pray. They should. It’s not that candidates should not pray. They should. It’s not that voters should not pray. They should. The question is not whether but when? It is dubious whether it is appropriate to open a common, secular, assembly with prayer. To whom are we praying? In whose name? What are we praying?


I do not know who first said that evangelicals are the Republican party at prayer. Was it George Marsden? It has been true at least since the days of the Moral Majority (c. 1980), just before which Southern evangelical Democrats began to switch party affiliations to the Republicans (in the wake of Roe v Wade). The expression probably pre-dates the Moral Majority since I have seen references to the mainline PCUSA as the Republican Party at prayer, which seems even more probable given the alliance between the mainline and main street (and Wall Street) for much of the 20th century. The post-Reagan alliance between evangelicals and Republicans was on display last night, as my friend and colleague Nicholas Davis observes. An evangelical pastor delivered a benediction, which turns out to have been more an imprecation against the Democrats as if the Republicans are Israel and the Democrats are Canaanites placed under divine judgment. At the opening of last night’s session, however, we saw something of the growing religious and cultural diversity in the USA as the Republican convention opened with prayer. That prayer was delivered by Harmeet Dhillon, an adherent of Sihkism. As the cameras panned the crowd I saw eyes closed but I thought I also detected some discomfort. The contrast between the crowd’s affirmation of the “benediction” (such as it was) and the polite reception of the opening prayer was palpable.

I understand the discomfort Christians might have felt in being asked to participate in a Sikh prayer. It made me uncomfortable and I was watching at home on my television. I did not participate. I may not participate. I will not participate in a prayer to what I, as a Christian, confess to be a pagan deity. The Christian Scriptures unambiguously forbid me as a Christian to a shared religious observance with pagans. Consider Paul’s warning to the Corinthian congregation:

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? (1 Cor 10:14-30; ESV).

Paul was helping the Corinthian Christians to navigate a religiously pluralistic world. How can Christians live in the world with pagans without compromising our religious identity? We may eat food offered to idols but if someone invites us to participate in a religious meal, we must decline. Christians have a religious meal: holy communion. The premise behind Paul’s teaching is the distinction between the secular (a common meal) and the sacred (a religious meal). We share common life with our pagan neighbors. We have common concerns about roads, schools, safety, and health. We interpret the significance of the world very differently, however, and there are things that we do not have in common, that we cannot share with them. We may not marry them (2 Cor 6:14) but we are not to withdrawal physically from the world (1 Cor 5:10) even as we abstain from its sexual immorality.

Christians have long struggled to get this right. Both monks and libertines have failed to understand 1 Corinthians 5:9–10: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world (ESV). Paul rejects both fleeing from the world physically (e.g., withdrawing to the desert or to a monastery) just as he condemns failing to distinguish between the Christian approach to life from that of the pagan.

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