Supreme Court

How to Pray in the Public Square

The Supreme Court ruled that town councils could open with overtly sectarian prayers. But there are other ways to pray in public, like we did at President Obama’s inauguration.

Jason Reed/Reuters

In January 2009, I was sleepless over a public prayer. I was asked by then President-elect Obama to deliver the invocation at the opening inaugural event. I was to pray on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—as holy a place as there is in Washington, D.C., the place where 75 years ago Marian Anderson sang (after being denied a recital at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution), where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched and gave us all a dream, and where I never fail to cry as I read Abraham Lincoln’s stirring words of reconciliation amidst the deadly Civil War which tore us asunder as a nation. Not to mention the honor of being asked to pray by the first African-American ever elected president of the United States.

To say I was anxious is an understatement. Not about speaking in front of over a million people. Not because I am reluctant to pray. But because as soon as the invitation came, I began worrying about how to make it inclusive of all Americans. I wanted this to be a prayer in which every American could pray along with me, at least those who chose to.I never figured out how to make it inclusive of those who do not believe in any kind of God, and I did not want to be a part of alienating those who are agnostic or atheistic. But if it was to be a prayer (what I had been asked to do), to whom should I address the prayer?

I settled on “Oh God of our many understandings” as the salutation. God is infinite, incomprehensible in God’s entirety, known by many names, described in many ways. I know that any religion can only grasp a portion of the reality of God they have come to know over millennia. No one has a “lock” on God. I wanted every person who believes there is a God to feel included in my prayer.

After the prayer, I had numerous Jews and Muslims come to me in tears, saying that never before had they felt a part of such public prayer. My simple and unremarkable salutation created a space for them to be a part of that amazing day, prayer and all. From conservative Christians I got voluminous hate mail accusing me of missing the opportunity to save souls by invoking the name of Jesus Christ, and judging me to have denied Christ like Peter and betrayed Christ like Judas. As for me, I am not worried about meeting Christ one day and hearing firsthand what he has to say about that prayer.

This week, the Supreme Court ruled on whether or not a town council can consistently and relentlessly open its meetings before the public with overtly Christian prayer. Yes, they could, it said. I don’t agree with their ruling, and there is much to be argued about in this case, but what I want to ask is: just because we can, should we? Wouldn’t it be the “Christian” thing to do, to show a bit of generosity of spirit and sensitivity to those whose beliefs differ from our own? If we are going to have public prayers (something worth debating another time), couldn’t they strive to include every person of whatever faith? I tried to do that for the President-elect. I’m still proud of my attempt. Here it is:

Oh God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

Bless us with tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless us with anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.

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Bless us with compassion and generosity remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him patience and perseverance – to listen carefully to all opinions and then move us toward consensus by appealing to the angels of our better natures.

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking WAY too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.


The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is the recently retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson