Praying at military ceremonies and other secular events is the subject of considerable public controversy. Some see it as a form of civil religion, with the state coopting religious faith to lend divine legitimacy the empire. Others see the opposite, with public prayers establishing the dominant religion’s cultural and political hegemony.
Christianity, of course, is the dominant religion within the United States, so the argument concerns both religion in general and Christianity in particular. One point of view posits that public religious events are evidence of the church’s subservience to the state. Others posit that they are evidence of Christianity’s dominance of the state. Furthermore, some see Christian dominance as proper, giving God his rightful place in society, while others see it as improper, with every civic expression of religion being oppressive to the minority or distorting the essence of true faith. You will find advocates of each position shouting at each other in the public square, and it makes for a most unpleasant conversation.
In 22 years of serving as a military chaplain, however, my experience has been that public prayers have more to do with people than politics. Public prayer meets a human need.
I have prayed at changes of command, retirement ceremonies, memorial ceremonies, building dedications, pre- and post-deployment ceremonies, convoy briefings in a combat zone, small group assemblies after the death of a soldier, staff meetings before a major operation, ethnic observances, dining-ins, office holiday parties and a number of other occasions. Some events are profoundly significant. Some are routine and some appear trivial. Never once, in all these years, have I said, “Let me pray at this event.” Every time that I’ve prayed for an assembled group outside the context of religious worship, it has been because the person in-charge has asked me to pray.
While I have frequently been asked to pray, I have never been told what to pray. The inviters trusted me to think about the occasion and to come up with a prayer that meets the needs of those assembled.
And while many of the events at which a chaplain prays appear routine, especially in the dress-right-dress world of the military, appearances are sometimes deceiving. Prayers on occasions as routine as changes of command or retirement ceremonies are not merely perfunctory. Beneath the façade of pomp and pageantry, these events are going to change people’s lives in ways that they can only guess.
If you scratch beneath the surface, most of the events at which I pray touch on the full range of human experiences: joy, sorrow, gratitude, regret, guilt, hope, love, anxiety and doubt, to name a few. They are all there in some degree. Religious people expect to pray (and be prayed for) at times like this. Public prayer meets a genuine religious need (or at least a want) for a significant number of people within the command. I’m not sure that non-religious or marginally religious people understand the significance that public prayer has for many.
How do you meet this need for some, which is not a need for all?
The right of people to receive prayer is clearer in one-on-one situations. When soldiers are wounded or families experience tragedies, those who are religious lean on prayer. I don’t think that there is a lot of controversy related to comforting wounded Soldiers with the religious words and prayers that are dear to them.
When I first came in the Army, in fact, chaplains frequently trained the rank-and-file soldiers in their units how to provide religious support to the dying, even to those who belonged to other faith traditions. I printed prayers and readings for the wounded from several faith traditions and distributed them to the members of the command. The prayers weren’t for you, necessarily; they were for your buddy. The idea was that a Protestant might help a Jew to say the “Shema” or an atheist might help a Catholic to make an act of contrition. While everyone was free to follow their own consciences on the matter, most soldiers seemed willing to do whatever was necessary to comfort their wounded comrades. Most felt that you could remain a good Christian, for example, while helping a dying Muslim experience the solace of their religion.
While most of the occasions on which I have offered group prayers are not as extreme as that of a dying Soldier on the battlefield, it occurs to me that I am essentially doing the same thing: I am trying to take care of soldiers by praying with and for those who value prayer. And it seems to me that I am asking the same thing of assembled soldiers that I asked of those who carried prayers for the wounded in their pockets: care enough for your buddy to support them in their religious needs.
When a chaplain is asked to pray at a ceremony or other public event, the commander has decided that prayer will meet a need for at least a large portion of those present. As I argued in Chaplain Prayer at Military Ceremonies, chaplains should do their best to craft public prayers that are not only fully consistent with their own faith commitments, but that also meet the needs of the broadest segment possible of those who are present. No prayer, however, will meet everyone’s need. Some don’t pray at all. When I stand to pray, I am implicity asking those for whom the prayer rings hollow to tolerate 30-60 seconds of speech with which they disagree so that their brothers and sisters can benefit. That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.
When I pray at military ceremonies, I’m not praying to prop up the state or to establish state-sponsored religion. I am praying because there are a lot of people who place a religious value on prayer, and I am trying to accommodate them. I hope that my fellow soldiers will also offer that courtesy to their brothers and sisters in arms.