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When the Supreme Court ruled last week, by the usual 5-4 majority, that sectarian prayers can routinely be said at local town boards, the civil-liberties objection was swift in coming. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, had defended the prayers because they “lend gravity to public proceedings.” Religion, as “part of our expressive idiom,” imbues civic functions with proper dignity, and reinforces “our heritage and tradition.” Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent expressed the ready objection. She pounced on Kennedy’s blithe use of the word “our,” pointing out that in pluralistic America “beliefs that are fundamental to some [are] foreign to others, and . . . carry the ever-present potential to both exclude and divide.” Government-sponsored prayers, burdening the conscience of some citizens, are bad for the state.

But they are worse for religion. What is Justice Kennedy saying about prayer when he defends it as a solemnizing ornament to be hung in town halls, lending a formal air to otherwise mundane functions of government? What — invoking the holy name of Jesus makes up for, say, town officials’ habit of showing up in gym clothes? If a member of the clergy, using a well-oiled preacher’s voice, opens the meeting by addressing Almighty God, will citizens behave with proper decorum? What does such profane utility have to do with the awesome mystery of prayer?

But decorum is exactly the point. The Supreme Court’s ruling comes as a latest manifestation of an ancient impulse to use religion as a mode of control. American conservatives advance public prayers wherever they can because they conceive of religion as a bulwark against the massive social changes that threaten from all sides. The religion of God the Father, in particular, reinforces all forms of paternal authority — which is especially to be valued when women have lost their proper sense of place.

Ever since the Roman emperor Constantine, rulers have wanted religion close — to stifle it. In the US House of Representatives, the guidelines for guest chaplains invoking the deity explicitly require that ceremonial prayers refrain “from any intimations pertaining to foreign or domestic policy.” But what religious faith has nothing to say about foreign or domestic policy? Chaplains must bless only the status quo.


Would Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito be so happy with prayers at government policy sessions if they invoked not the safely resurrected Jesus in heaven, but the down-to-earth Isaiah-citing prophet who demands justice for the poor, liberty for prisoners, and proper care for the sick? Would the prayers in Greece, N.Y., have been upheld if routinely offered by the trouble-making Desmond Tutu, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, or even (note his radical challenge on desperate migrants) Pope Francis?


Authentic prayer is a risky business. It has a way of forcing open realms in which answers are far from certain, set attitudes are questioned, and consciences are made uneasy. To pray, after all, is to acknowledge that no power on earth is supreme — not money, not weapons, not fame, not social standing, not romantic love, not even the US Constitution. All of these can be turned into idols, and often are. To pray is to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, whose possible “intimations” pertain to everything — decidedly including foreign and domestic policy.

“Religion,” in the words of the late scholar Ronald Dworkin, “is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview: It holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order.” What does such grandeur have to do with serving as mere bunting for public functions? A few formulaic words with heads bowed, akin to gaveling the room to silence, confirm all who know the code in their insidership. But it also does violence to the sublime mystery of real faith.

The separation of church and state should mean just that, and not only for democracy’s sake. The United States has a long history of conscripting someone called “God” into its worst mistakes, and American religion has been horribly corrupted again and again. For the sake of citizens who believe differently, or believe not at all, prayer has no place at the elbow of on-duty officials. But for the love of God, who transcends town meetings and the very nation, prayer has no place there either.


James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.