A prayer for healing

by Keith Barber

Four out of seven Forsyth County commissioners voted Monday to press forward with an appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that sectarian prayer at the opening of their meetings violates the First Amendment. Prior to the vote, commissioners heard from 10 citizens during a public hearing. Eight of the 10 citizens who spoke urged the commissioners to contest the decision of US District Court Judge James Beaty. Two citizens, however, respectfully disagreed with the majority of speakers.

Charles Wilson, a Southern Baptist minister and member of the ACLU, said America was founded upon the principle of the separation of church and state. And because of that separation, America has flourished as a pluralistic society, wherein all faiths and religions are welcome. Wilson said he still believes in the separation of church and state, but many of his fellow Baptists do not share his view — at least, not on this particular issue.

“Where does your freedom end and where does mine begin?” Wilson asked. “Every time a sectarian prayer is uttered in a government institution, somebody else’s religious freedom is violated.”

Many of the advocates of the appeal invoked the concept of religious freedom as the foundation of their argument as well, underscoring the philosophical differences between the opposing sides.

Passions ran high during Monday’s meeting. The intense public interest drew an estimated 800 people to the Forsyth County Government Center. The commissioners’ chambers, two overflow rooms and a jampacked lobby could not hold all the spectators. During the public hearing, a number of citizens voiced their approval of the speaker’s comments with an affirming, “Amen.” When the commissioners announced their decision, the partisan crowd erupted in applause.

In the days leading up to Monday’s meeting, a number of local clergy, community leaders and religious scholars had called for a peaceful solution to the prayer debate.

Bill Leonard, the founding dean of the Wake Forest School of Divinity, composed an essay entitled, “Celebrating the Silence,” in response to the current controversy that is clearly having a deeply divisive effect on Winston-Salem’s dynamic faith community.

Leonard’s solution is simple and brilliant at the same time: Silent prayer is the perfect answer.

Silence strengthens the nature of prayer rather than weakening it, Leonard argues.

“Those who wish to pray may do so out of their own tradition and personhood without debating the nature of a public prayer or fretting about whose tradition is privileged at any one time,” he writes. “Silence actually gives voice to all who gather at a government meeting at a given time. More importantly, silent prayer may strengthen an understanding of the nature of prayer itself, turning it from debates over public policy and allowing it to be what prayer should be — a dialogue between God and a human being, often grounded in diverse, even contradictory, theologies and traditions.”

James Dunn, a Baptist and a professor of Christianity and public policy at Wake Forest, said he has a hard time reconciling the position of many Baptists who support the county’s appeal.

“It is really strange to me that some Baptists can get so righteously indignant about enforcing the calling of the name of Jesus in a public ritual,” he said. “We’re not very ritual friendly in the Baptist Church; it’s just inconsistent.”

Dunn, the former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, asserted that the mere requirement of a prayer in a government meeting demotes prayer from a very personal interaction with God to an “empty secular ritual.”

Dunn then invoked the words of American theologian Roger Williams.

“To call a nation Christian may make a nation of hypocrites but not one single true believer,” Dunn said.

Rather than becoming a drawnout battle between warring factions, Leonard hopes the prayer controversy can become a “teachable moment” for the community.

“The questions raised in this confrontation make Winston-Salem a microcosm for religio-political issues dividing 21 st century America,” Leonard writes.

These significant issues should be discussed among the people of Winston-Salem, not at the commissioners meetings or in the courts, Leonard argues. He proposes a community forum where religious leaders focus discussion, not on prayer at government meetings, but on the importance of religious liberty and its meaning in an increasingly pluralistic society.

In the meantime, Leonard’s proposal of silent prayer will have to wait until the outcome of the county’s legal appeal. The Forsyth County commissioners have voted, and there will be no prayer (silent or otherwise) until this matter is resolved in the courts. And that could take years and years. But this debate does offer a rare opportunity for people of all faiths to come together and discuss their differences in a peaceful manner. Perhaps Forsyth County’s teachable moment is still within its grasp.