Pastors and the Public Square: No NYC 9/11 Prayer a snub or blessing?

Today, Cathy Ruse, on behalf of Tony Perkins, from the Family Research Council delivered more than 62,000 petitions signed by Americans urging New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to allow prayer at the official 9/11 commemoration.  As you might expect, this has caused not a little bit of criticism within the blogosphere.

What you might not expect is where the criticism has come from: Christian theologians.

The criticism is not of Mayor Bloomberg, or even Tony Perkins.  Prominent theologians – some of whom I hold in very high esteem – have criticized evangelical pastors for even bothering to be bothered about not being invited to pray at what they view as an ecumenical, Gospel-confusing, moralistic service of remembrance.

This lowly attorney takes humble umbrage.

Rev. William Cwirla goes so far as to thank Mayor Bloomberg:

Good for him!  He’ll save us all a bunch of post-9/11ecumenical hangover headaches on Monday.  As far as I’m concerned, clergy are best neither seen nor heard in the public square.  And I’m one of them.

What makes clergy “clergy” is their appointment to serve their “faith communities” as we like to call them.  Pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams and the like represent their various religious bodies and teach their various religions to their respective groups.  They are public figures within their congregations and circles of influence, not within society at large.  At least in this society.

He goes on to reason that what happened on 9/11 was an attack on America and were not religious in nature.  The reason, he supposes, that we value prayer as a part of this remembrance is two-fold: (1) people “get religion” in times of crises and (2) Americans, “believe in our patriotic heart of hearts that our being American somehow transcends our being Catholic, Lutheran, Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.”

His solution is to ignore the public square during the day and tend to his flock, boldly proclaiming the Truth of the Gospel to those gathered with him.  For that, I am thankful.  For his myopic view of the 9/11 commemoration, and role of the pastor in the public square, I am not.

The sometimes ironic theologian, Carl Trueman, has also weighed in against such public displays of ecumenical affection:

Rather than lamenting the situation, the [pastors] should be delighted that the organizers had the sensititivity and foresight not to place them in the grim position of having to turn down such an invitation in order to avoid compromising their orthodox, Protestant identity.  The public relations disaster that would have followed this elementary stand for biblical truth and exclusivity would have been spectacular.  After all, how could one maintain that one is taking seriously I Timothy 2 while sharing prayer time with a real-life incarnate lama?

Theologian Michael Horton has taken the most thoughtful approach to the topic.  Unfortunately, it was also something of a shot across the bow of Jay Sekulow:

On one hand, this is a constitutional issue. Especially given the history of civil religion in America, it’s implausible to imagine that the nation’s founders ever intended anything like the separation of religion and public life that the mantra “separation of church and state” has come to embody. On the other hand, it is a theological issue. In other words, even if Mayor Bloomberg has no constitutional reason to avoid the liturgical interjections in public commemorations that were included by his predecessor, the debate returns us to a recurring question of decisive importance to Christians. It’s not a question of whether prayer at public occasions of this kind is sanctioned by our Constitution, but, for Christians at least, whether we can participate (much less encourage) such acts of “non-sectarian” worship.

His reminder is that prayer – orthodox, protestant, Christian prayer – is unique.  It is a form of worship that is meant for God’s people by which they worship their God.  It is decidedly not the, “therapeutic idiom” he chides Sekulow for promoting.  But, admittedly, there is public witness to prayer – at least true prayer that is a response, compelled by the Holy Spirit, to the proclamation of God’s good grace as expressed in his Word.  Thus, he concludes:

Christianity at its best is always an odd sect in a world of idolatry and superstition. The power lies not in its ability to negotiate general piety for a national soul, but in its most particular and offensive message: the gospel of Christ. We don’t evacuate the public square that we share with our neighbors-even the “prophets of Baal.” Rather, we testify there that Christ alone is Lord, that he alone has conquered death and hell, that our greatest terror and consolation have to do with headlines much more serious and all-encompassing than the genuine tragedy of 9/11. We don’t need Mayor Bloomberg to help us with that. In fact, in the very act of doing so, we have to surrender the most important things we are called to say.

It is precisely because God is more important than we are, sin is much greater than something that others do to us, redemption is far greater than therapeutic consolation, and love for our neighbors encourages us to proclaim the everlasting consolation of the gospel, that we dare not trivialize that dangerous, wonderful and absolutely effective act of calling on the name of the Lord in life and in death.

In fairness to Dr. Horton, it would seem his remarks (and perhaps those of the others) are directed at those pastors who appear more concerned about being heard in the public square and are easily excited to address political or social issues, but have churches withering on the vine of Christ.  They wither because, rather than a diet of meaty Scripture, they are weekly fed the milquetoast of moralism.

To that audience, they have me as a friend.  We ask pastors only two things at the Family Policy Council of West Virginia: (1) Preach the Gospel and (2) Let us know how we can serve their congregation.  That’s it and, frankly, if enough pastors got #1 right, #2 would be unnecessary.

Still, while I largely agree that there is a danger of a watered-down Gospel as a result of a protestant inclusion amidst an ecumenical service, and while I am thankful for Horton’s admonishment that we maintain our focus on feeding our flock a Gospel that transcends mere moralism, I disagree with both the wisdom of this criticism as well as the relinquishment, as they seem to insist upon, of the public square.

What is to be gained by this criticism?

Rather than a stern warning cry over a core Gospel issue, these criticisms seem to have unnecessarily taken to task many who hold public prayer as an issue of preference, or even conviction, that permits them to participate in acts of public prayer.

At their core, each seems to indicate that the Gospel will be diluted and that appearing on the stage with a lama will prevent a clearly articulate presentation of the Gospel.  Those are rather stark assumptions, are they not?  Is it not possible that some bold men of God might take the opportunity to declare the Word of God to those gathered?  It is a short time and an unlikely venue, but stranger things have happened.

That they assume, and therefore castigate those who are persuaded in their own mind to participate, that the only possible result of so participating is to promote “civil” or “national” religion is below the standard I expect from such men.

It’s a cheap shot.  Men like Tony Perkins and Jay Sekulow work diligently to faithfully articulate biblical truths, and the application thereof, in the world of public policy.  If these fine theologians have theological concerns, with their work, I’d be pleased to facilitate the discussion between them.  I don’t know Jay as well, but Tony is laudably approachable and willing to be taught.  But, to engage in what comes across as fratricide is unnecessary.

Further, it goes to far.  These men have broken no doctrines of Scripture, they are not preaching a false Gospel.  Instead, they weather attacks repeatedly by those opposed to Scripture so that men like Horton, Trueman, and Cwirla have the opportunity to pray – publicly or otherwise – as they deem fit.  What purpose does belittling them serve?

Beyond this, it seems that each wishes that pastors would banish themselves from the public square.  Trueman called praying at such a commemoration an, “elementary stand for biblical truth.”  Cwirla says, “clergy are best neither seen nor heard in the public square.”  Horton is more measured, saying:

We don’t live under the old covenant, driving the prophets of Baal through with the sword. Rather, we have the privilege of religious freedom for true and false worship in this country. Nevertheless, we do not expect the state to create opportunities for the advance of Christ’s kingdom through his means of grace.

Again, I appreciate the necessary exhortation that pastors pastor, that they focus on making their ministry effectual.  Yet, they overreach when they fail to identify their target audience.

One could argue that each of these sentiments confuse the duty of the state to punish evil and preserve the space for the Gospel.  Likewise, it’s easy to conclude from such statements that, in some ways, the state is superior to the church or at least that there are parallel roles for the church and the state, neither superior to another.

As Kuyper famously observed, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Going further, Jeremiah 29:7 reminds us that God’s people are to, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

This was a prophecy from God to his people who were living among a city that was, as the prophecy was later to reveal, going to be destroyed!  Yet, God calls his people to – specifically – pray for the welfare of that soon-to-be-destroyed city.  Why?  Because it’s prosperity, or lack thereof, would redound to their benefit (or detriment) too.

So, the question to Horton, Trueman, and Cwirla is does retreating from the public square entirely advance the welfare of their (our) city?

In that, I do believe we have room for different sets of preference.  But, for the moment, as it concerns prayer with Michael Bloomberg, I hope these men will reconsider their words of criticism and make good on their commitment to pray for the nation that humanly affords them protection from evil, even while they proclaim the God who has defeated evil entirely.

Moreover, whether intercessory or therapeutic, I hope these men will personally pray for God’s comfort and grace to be given to the 2,996 families who were directly impacted by this public display of human evil.



About Jeremy Dys

Jeremy Dys is the FPCWV's President and General Counsel. In addition to his duties of providing strategic vision and leadership to the FPCWV, Dys is the chief lobbyist and spokesman. Dys is regularly featured in local, state, and national print, radio, and television outlets. He lives close to Charleston with his wife and growing family.

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