Prayer can change things. Mainly the person who prays. But can it change — for the better — the nature of politicians and the way they do business? Probably not.
Nevertheless, the Miami-Dade Commission is poised to reinstate an opening prayer at its meetings. A preliminary vote was overwhelmingly in favor and final approval is almost a given when commissioners meet on Dec. 4.
Does anyone realistically expect a politician to go on record as opposing a few reverent words seeking God’s grace and counsel? Not a chance. Even commissioners who privately prefer the current moment-of-silence format may be forced to vote Yes.
Is this a big deal? No, but it’s not a perfect deal either. A brief (don’t count on it) prayer can’t hurt as long as it’s non-denominational as the proposed ordinance prescribes.
But a rotating list of clergy won’t be submitting their invocations in writing and some are likely to stray into proselytizing territory. It’s the nature of things. It’s what the Bible commands. I’ve heard dozens, nay hundreds of pre-meeting invocations before local, state and federal governmental bodies and more often than not the prayer was directed to “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Fine if you’re a Christian, but what if you’re not? What if you’re an atheist?
The current court precedent says clergy praying before a public body may invoke the help of “God,” but not of Jesus, Jehovah, Yahweh, Krishna, Vishnu or the god of your choice. Nevertheless, the assorted clergy I’ve heard before government meetings most frequently pray to Jesus. Makes sense since we are a mostly Christian nation. But we are also a pluralistic and tolerant nation that rejects state-sanctioned religion.
And there’s the rub. Public prayers have a worthy intent — holding elected leaders to a higher standard. But they often turn into proselytizing for one brand of religious belief or another. Good luck if you’re a Jew, Muslim or someone who doesn’t consider Jesus the Messiah.
Since 2004 the Miami-Dade Commission has made do with a “moment of silence” instead of a prayer to kick off meetings after former Commissioner Katy Sorenson pointed out, correctly that most of the prayers she’d heard invoked Jesus and were insensitive to Jews, other non-Christians and non-believers. So commissioners said, let’s begin with a “moment of silence,” a politically correct fig leaf, an accommodation like the brown bag around the can or bottle that makes it legal to drink in public.
Here’s the question to consider: Will a prayer make our commissioners more moral, more ethical, more honest? It’s impossible to say, but it’s pretty clear that their moral fiber didn’t significantly deteriorate over the last eight years without an opening prayer.
Enter the Christian Family Coalition which thinks prayer should be reinstated. The coalition lobbied hard and got a 6-0 vote in committee. Their arguments in favor, however, were just a tad disingenuous.
Coalition members went to the committee meeting wearing stickers that read, “Floridians for Speech Equality.” Since when does prayer get equal time with other speech at governmental meetings? Prayers are narrowly legal at public meetings, but just as you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater you can’t ask Jesus or any other deity to bless the proceedings. Besides, doesn’t God — or whatever term you care to use for the Supreme Being — hear us whether we speak out loud or not?
Reminds me of the time Bill Moyers, then the press secretary to LBJ and also an ordained minister, was asked to say the blessing at a White House dinner. Moyers began his prayer, but was soon interrupted by the president. “I can’t hear you, Bill,” Johnson said. To which Moyers replied, “I wasn’t speaking to you, Mr. President.”
The Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution are replete with references to the Creator. Our currency says “In God We Trust.” You may not be able to put a statue with the Ten Commandments in the public square, but you surely can ask for God’s help and guidance there. Just don’t expect our worthy Miami-Dade Commissioners to act any differently after they’ve heard that opening prayer.