Last week, as the Texas Board of Education prepared to finalize controversial new textbook standards, board member Cynthia Dunbar was asked to offer the opening prayer.
Here’s what she said:
“Most gracious heavenly Father. We come before you today, and ask that you grant to us the ability not to be anxious for the future, wisdom and understanding for the day, and hearts of gratitude for our past. As we look to our past to guide us, let us reflect on the convictions of those who have gone before us. I believe that nobody can look to the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England or the Charter of Massachusetts Bay, or the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”
I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it. Freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under the law, and the reservation of powers to the people. I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country. All this I pray in the name of my lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”
When I came to Georgia 20 years ago, I found the practice of opening almost every governmental meeting with prayer a little startling. I had worked as a journalist in every other section of the country, and had never seen it done so often. Even subcommittee meetings at the state Legislature are often begun with an invitation to pray.
Most of the time, the prayers amount to pleas for wisdom and guidance in decision-making, and only the eager-to-be-offended could find much to criticize. Occasionally, prayer leaders become much more specific and fervent, for example pledging all in attendance to obey the teachings of Jesus Christ in how they vote. That’s more troubling.
You are, after all, speaking to an audience of diverse beliefs, not to a congregation of the same-minded. A citizen should not be compelled to take part in religious activities contrary to his or her beliefs as a price for participating in government. All are supposed to stand on level ground in that setting.
And once in a while, you’ll get somebody who really abuses the privilege and uses the prayer to make explicitly political statements, as Dunbar did last week.
Let’s side aside the political and historical content of Dunbar’s prayer, which is of course highly debatable in its own right. What I find more outrageous is her decision to smuggle that content into the form of a prayer that others in attendance were required to listen to silently, heads bowed, as if in agreement, with no dissent allowed.
She was not using the prayer to talk to God, which ought to be its purpose; she was using it to tell others what God would say to them if He was there.
Personally, I find it highly offensive to watch people place their own political viewpoints into the mouth of God, in effect turning God into their personal sock puppet. Whatever your concept of a Supreme Being, you cheapen it by drafting Him as a megaphone for your own political views, and to do so in that kind of setting.
Government and religion are each very powerful in its own realm, and if allowed to join in mutual purpose they constitute an overpowering force that inevitably, always tries to sweep away all dissenting views. Dunbar speaks fervently about the lessons of the past; the lessons of the past in that regard are distressingly clear, as our Founding Fathers knew from direct and recent experience.