Russell Moore weighs in on the recent Supreme Court decision about a town opening its council meetings in prayer. He does not believe this is an establishment of religion and so defends the majority opinion. But he goes further to address the question of why have prayer at all:
Some would say, further, that we could eliminate this tension altogether by simply disallowing any sort of prayer. In her dissent, Justice Kagan said that we come to our government simply as Americans, not as representatives of various religious traditions. But, again, this is itself a religious claim, that faith is simply a private personal preference with no influence on our public lives. That’s a claim that millions of us, whatever our religious beliefs, reject.
Prayer at the beginning of a meeting is a signal that we aren’t ultimately just Americans. We are citizens of the State, yes, but the State isn’t ultimate. There is some higher allegiance than simply political process. We often disagree on what this more ultimate Reality is, but the very fact that the State isn’t the ultimate ground of reality serves to make all of us better citizens, striving to seek for justice in ways that aren’t simply whatever the majority can vote through. And it reminds us that there is a limit to the power of politics and of government.
I don’t understand why this makes sense of any proper notion of jurisdiction. The only claims the state has on me is as an American citizen. It doesn’t touch my identity as a Christian any more than it touches my neighbor’s as a Mormon. Towns, townships, counties, and states in the United States assemble people by virtue of their civil identity only. Of course, if you think that you have only one identity, the way that the propagandists for race, gender, and sexual orientation have taught us, then you may want to say in good evangelical fashion that everything I am is Christian — all the way down. But if religious conviction and church membership is only one one part of me, if I am a member of a heavenly city, while also a citizen of the earthly city (in addition to being a husband, cat provider, Joseph Epstein reader), why does the earthly city need to recognize my heavenly identity when I walk around the United States? Aside from the very constitutional notion that public office and citizenship in the U.S. have no religious tests, an Augustinian rendering of the state requires no religious affirmation from public officials or religious trappings to public ceremonies. In fact, an Augustinian could well regard the prayers of towns like Greece a form of blasphemy if said petitions confuse the affairs of the secular realm with the kingdom of Christ. (And frankly, I don’t see any other way of regarding such a prayer — either it is a full-on Christian one that will not perform the public function of including those who can’t pray in Christ’s name, or it is such a bland one that no Christian could pray it.)
So instead of the state needing to recognize my religious side as Moore suggests, a better tack might be to consider justification by faith alone. If God can engage in a legal fiction and view me through the unspotted robes Christ, perhaps U.S. Christians can allow U.S., state, and local officials to engage in an eschatalogical fiction and view us simply as citizens of the United States.