Dealing in absolutes: thoughts on a statehouse prayer – Editorial

James M. Wall

Deep faith rarely shares newspaper clippings with me unless they support his religious convictions or, better yet, give him ammunition with which to attack what he feels are my liberal views. When he gave me a story with the headline “Pastor’s Statehouse Prayer Creates an Absolute Furor,” my first thought was that a liberal clergyman had, say, denounced President Clinton’s economic embargo on Cuba. No such luck. Joe Wright, pastor of Wichita Central Christian Church, stirred up controversy with his prayer at a January session of the Kansas legislature because his prayer was filled with moral absolutes (hence the clever headline).

Deep Faith is usually reserved, but on this day he was downright ebullient. Grabbing me by the arm, he read from Wright’s prayer: “Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and seek your direction and guidance. We know your word says, `Woe to those who call evil good,’ but that’s exactly what we’ve done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and inverted our values.”

I couldn’t object to those words. They reminded me of Abraham Lincoln’s admonitory words spoken during the Civil War when he said “the awful calamity of Civil War, which now desolates the land, may be a punishment, inflicted on us, for our presumptuous sins.” Deep Faith knew I liked Lincoln’s Civil War speeches, for I often refer to them in our talks.

“There’s more,” said Deep Faith, reading from Wright’s prayer: “We confess that we have ridiculed the absolute truth of your word and called it moral pluralism. We have worshiped other gods and called it multiculturalism. We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle.” These words led to walkouts in the Kansas statehouse and again in Colorado, where the prayer was repeated. Paul Harvey has read the prayer on the radio and Wright’s church has logged more than 6,500 phone calls and received “boxes of mail” about the prayer.

I began to understand Deep Faith’s delight. State legislators are not accustomed to hearing preachers come down so hard on multiculturalism and alternative lifestyles. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear either, especially since the Supreme Court had just decided to be more lenient toward gays and lesbians by jettisoning the Colorado amendment that discriminated against the homosexual community. I have frequently argued with my fundamentalist friend over the need for tolerance and understanding in dealing with other faiths and persons of a different sexual orientation. I don’t believe God’s final word on this topic has been delivered in a few, selected biblical passages, nor could I imagine he wanted to hear a prayer that deliberately attacked part of the human family.

Deep Faith let me finish, smiled, and then read Wright’s comments about the controversy: “What else would they expect from me? I don’t know if they were just looking for platitudes or a `To whom it may concern’ kind of prayer. But there are absolutes, and God has called me to preach the truth. Naturally, any time you preach absolutes you’re going to offend some people.”

Deep Faith was now well into what he likes to call one of his “sermons on the train.” He shifted his focus, and began to tell me about an incident he had read about in David Brinkley’s book Washington Goes to War. Chester Bowles, who later served in President Kennedy’s cabinet, was director of Connecticut’s rationing and price control office during the early years of World War II. The leader of the Connecticut Democratic Party, with his eye on potential patronage, told Bowles he had to “consult with local party leaders” before setting up local boards that would determine rationing and prices. The boards Bowles decided to set up in each city and town had to include “one businessman, one teacher, one union official, one storekeeper, in rural areas one farmer, and one respected person from no special category.”

Who would be the “one respected person”? “Usually a clergyman,” according to Brinkley’s account. “You and I know, “Deep Faith concluded, “the clergyman selected would, except in Catholic areas, have been a mainline Protestant.”

So what, I wondered, does that story have to do with your religious absolutes? Everything, Deep Faith insisted, “because in the 1940s and 1950s, the mainline Protestants dominated religious thinking in this country. And when political leaders looked for `respected persons’ they looked to the Protestant clergy because they gained their position of dominance by fitting in with the businessman, the teacher, the union official, the farmer and the storekeeper. How did they do that? They eagerly gave up all their absolutes in the name of tolerance and openness.”

Before I could argue with this, Deep Faith read again from his news clipping, quoting Wright: “There’s a great hunger now for absolutes. The mainline denominations are dying because they have accepted the idea that everything is gray. The churches that are growing are the ones that are taking a position, that see the world in black and white.”

I told Deep Faith that what sounds to him like a prophetic word strikes me as arrogant hubris. But he persisted: “Listen to this passage from Wright’s prayer: `We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery. We have neglected the needy and called it self-preservation.’ You like that, don’t you?” He knew I would, since I feel strongly that state-run lotteries are a form of taxation of the poor.

Deep Faith stopped and then added quietly, “You see, your absolutes are divinely inspired. Some, but not all, as you can see, from Brother Wright, are statements of `arrogant hubris.’ Prayers, if they must be uttered in secular public spaces, should be authentic to the person’s understanding of what the Almighty prefers. I suspect your people said many absolutist prayers that asked the Lord to end the war in Vietnam and halt the evil of segregation.”

He had me there, of course. Lincoln spoke in absolutes. Confront a mainline Protestant with racial injustice, war, or the exploitation of the poor, and absolutes will surface. Deep Faith put the clipping in my hand and departed before I could tell him that his absolutes are narrowly focused, while mine are more broadly based.

Later it occurred to me that the best response to the absolutism of Joe Wright was this passage from Active Faith, by Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed: “If religious conservatives are wise, they will resist the temptation to replace the social engineering of the left with the social engineering of the right by forcing compliance with the moral principles that motivate us deeply.”

I know what Deep Faith would have said to that. He would have said: “Reed is talking about legislative action; Joe Wright was praying to a God who had given him some absolutes he had to share with those legislators. It is up to the Kansas legislature to determine what to do with those absolutes.” I know Deep Faith would have said that because he believes legislators are always caught in human ambiguity, while Christian faith is built on absolutes. Mixing the two is the problem which is what I know we will talk about the next time we meet.

COPYRIGHT 1996 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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