Sometimes someone has to say that the emperor has no clothes. Here goes:

There is no such thing as nonsectarian prayer.

“Nonsectarian” is a polite euphemism for “generically Christian,” and more specifically “generically Protestant, but probably acceptable to nearly all followers of Abrahamic religions.” That’s it; that’s all it means. It’s not an acceptable alternative to “sectarian” prayer because it somehow magically includes everyone. That alternative doesn’t exist.

It’s not possible to give a prayer that doesn’t exclude someone.

The act of praying is exclusionary: most atheists don’t pray.

The mode of praying is exclusionary: some people pray by putting on specific garments; some pray by dancing; some pray by kneeling; some pray by making burnt offerings; some pray by creating artworks; and on and on. Simply standing or sitting with bowed head and folded hands while someone says words is a specific kind of prayer that is primarily practiced by a specific type of religion.

It doesn’t matter that that group is broad and varied. It doesn’t matter that that group is hegemonic in this country. It’s a specific act associated with a specific religion, and if that’s not the definition of sectarian, I don’t know what is.

As for content, most prayers begin by stating who or what they are addressing. Some don’t; they remain in a prayer equivalent of passive voice by saying “We pray that…. and for ….” Theologically, this is a cop-out. It’s the equivalent of those ads you get from the local cable company that read “To our neighbor at…” It’s like playing Pin the Prayer on the Deity: stand with your eyes closed and pray in as vague a fashion as possible, desperately hoping that your words and intent will bump into a kindly power as they wing their way blindly into the universe.

Worse yet, it’s a cop-out that doesn’t fool anybody. At most, it allows people to substitute their own mental image of whomever or whatever they want to address their prayer to. But recognizing that prayer may be directed to many different sources which can’t be condensed into a unified thing is undermining the very idea of a universal prayer. It makes the exercise at best a simulacrum of unity – at the price of already having excluded people – and at worst a farce.

When a recipient is addressed, that by definition excludes people. Not everyone prays to the same deity, and plenty of people don’t pray to someone or something that can be addressed as simply “God” or “Lord.”

The inimitable Byron Ballard wrote about her experience with this in a different setting:

When that wonderful interfaith group came together on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center/Pentagon horrors, we tried our best to come up with a prayer that everyone was comfortable hearing and saying.

And we couldn’t do it.  Well-meaning and well-mannered as we all were, there simply wasn’t a way of creating a generic prayer.

Byron is right. That group didn’t fail because they didn’t try hard enough, they failed because it’s impossible. The opposite of sectarian isn’t “nonsectarian,” it’s secular.

The only places where the myth of nonsectarianism can have credence are places where there’s enough similarity of religious belief and practice to render something like “God” meaningful. In intra-Christian work, nonsectarian prayer can exist; the Catholic priest and the Lutheran and Baptist pastors all agree not to to pray to Mary, not to say “sola scriptura,” and not to say “accept Jesus into your hearts right now.” That’s nonsectarian with respect to the subdivisions of Christianity. It’s still sectarian because it’s specific to the Christian sect.

If you’re in a group that is Christian by definition, go right ahead with nonsectarian Christian prayer. But once you start talking about – or praying in – public situations, open to all, then by definition in this country you are not talking about a wholly Christian population.

It’s true that since the Abrahamic religions are all basically monotheistic faiths that primarily address the divine in masculine terms, it is linguistically possible to write prayers that do not violate any of the fundamental tenets of these religions. I leave it to members of those religions to decide how comfortable they are with prayers like that on theological grounds.

But I guarantee you that if an Arab Christian started out a “nonsectarian” prayer addressing the divine as Allah, which Arab Christians have done for as long as there has been Christianity, the conservative echo chamber would explode with furor over how this supposedly “nonsectarian” prayer was actually evidence of a secret Muslim desire to institute shariah law. “Nonsectarian” has a lot of unmentioned implicit assumptions built in which highlight the ways that it is actually very sectarian, and very much about specific kinds of privilege and power.

When those implicit assumptions go unchallenged, it helps create a sense that the hegemonic group is more inclusive than it actually is. This backfires because it reinforces the power of the hegemons – who, as I observed above, will not relinquish power over the definition of the group that subtly privileges them above all other “nonsectarians.” Then the people who are still excluded – the atheists, the agnostics, the polytheists, the goddess-worshippers, and anyone who won’t play along with the pretend notion that everyone is talking to the same deity – are faced with an even larger, more powerful group.

The idea of “nonsectarian” prayer is nothing more nor less than an invisible set of clothes created and worn by hegemonic Protestant Christianity to excuse and defend it getting to have a privileged place in public discourse, most notably in the prayers given in the context of government business.

The threads are spun out of the artificially-created notion that there is something substantive which can be called “Judeo-Christian” religion. The cloth is woven in front of amazed onlookers by pseudo-generic Christians who have concealed their actual agendas in the frame of the loom which shapes the very warp and weft of their fantasy. It is dyed in the colors of imagined inclusiveness with the assistance of some members of minorities. And it is tailored to fit and flatter only the most privileged of the hegemons.

Others can either shape themselves to fit it – usually doing violence to the unique parts of themselves, their beliefs, and their practices – or they can explain how it doesn’t fit. But because of the wonderful consensus-inducing coating on the fibers, the fact that anybody who doesn’t fit will have parts of themselves show through the gaps in the invisible suit is always put down to their problems, rather than the nature of the suit, much less the fact that it doesn’t exist.

One of the reasons people are so reluctant to acknowledge that the nonsectarian minister emperor isn’t wearing any clothes is that we all want to think that if we work at getting along, we can make it happen. So “nonsectarian” becomes the religious and political version of “Intent is Magic!” If you say a prayer nicely enough, everybody will agree with it.

But part of having an adult, realistic conversation about religion in America today is being aware that, as Stephen Prothero put it, God is not one. He’s not even a he. I’m honest enough to acknowledge that not everyone practices religion in the same way I do. I’m asking for others to recognize the same.

I don’t care whether you have the best intentions in the world; when you are put in a position of speaking for government and you make me feel belittled, othered, and excluded, I am hurt by it. That’s wrong, and that’s one of many things the First Amendment is supposed to prevent. Especially when that exclusion conveys the stamp of governmental approval.

It’s time for the idea of “nonsectarian” prayer as an acceptable, non-exclusionary form of government-sponsored observance to be recognized for what it is: nonsense.

The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Nonsectarian prayer doesn’t exist.

11 thoughts on “The myth of nonsectarianism

    1. To be fair, Fred Clark first said that “the opposite of secular is sectarian,” in the context of saying that anyone who opposes being secular better be prepared to name which sect they want to make the official religion.

      I’m just tired of “nonsectarian” prayers being touted as an alternative and was thrilled to see the recent decision from the Second Circuit that reaffirmed that the government can’t establish a “vague theism” in general. I think that’s an important point that gets obscured too often by a “nonsectarian” “vague theism” which isn’t neutral and isn’t inclusive.

  1. ‘It’s time for the idea of “nonsectarian” prayer as an acceptable, non-exclusionary form of government-sponsored observance to be recognized for what it is: nonsense.’

    It’s time for the idea of prayer as an acceptable form of government-sponsored observance to be recognized for what it is: nonsense.

    There–fixed it for you.

    All kidding aside, this is a very well-done post, IMO. I believe that too often even religious pluralists get caught up in the ‘common ground’ model, which posits, in the words of Douglas Pratt, that “there is a ‘common ground’ of religious ‘reality’ from which the different religions of the world derive.” My own view is that this is a bit naive. If you’re interested in other possible models, Canon Pratt’s thoughts on the subject of ‘contextual paradigms for interfaith relations’ may be of interest to you.

    1. Thanks for the fix. 🙂 Since there is no such thing as nonsectarian prayer, it’s not a sufficient excuse.

      Interesting point. If I have a chance to read up on that I’ll be curious to think about it w.r.t. Prothero.

  2. If I wouldn’t feel silly doing it all by my lonesome, I’d stand up right here at the computer and give you a standing ovation. Brilliantly well-said!

  3. I’ll start by saying that my religion, or lack of a religion, has nothing to do with this comment. but can I please just throw in my 2 cents and say the way you wrote this was absolutely 1 sided with no input on why anyone would WANT to be nonsectarian or in a perfect world how non sectarianism would work. As a person who could care less about religion and what religions people practice I know nothing about non sectarianism, and generally people who read a strongly worded article like this would totally fall into line with what you said and agree with you and just assume you were right, but I just had to say think the way you wrote this is unfair and doesn’t do justice to the opposite side of your argument which makes it biased which makes your side of the argument hold no legitimacy. That being said I think in the last 3 paragraphs I got your point, and I like your point and I think it was a well meaning article and I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I’m just saying my English comp 2 teacher would have hit me in the head with a baseball bat if i turned this into him.

    1. I’m not sure why I should give a hoot what your English comp teacher would think. As for the false kind of “fairness” practiced by most so-called news organizations today by getting quotes from both sides, well, I’m not working for them either.

      Sometimes communicating clearly and persuasively is one of the only skills a tiny minority can employ.

  4. Chiming very late — I agree that the idea of “nonsectarian prayer” (or indeed ANY prayer) in a public, official context is nonsensical, exclusionary, and offensive.

    However, I’d like your thoughts on private, voluntary associations of friendly individuals, of various religions, faiths, and none at all. I belong to a lot of groups (both online and off) and we struggle with developing a language to express compassion, share joy, and send well-wishes.

    Several of them have developed what are essentially “code words”, that everyone in the group accepts (one uses “I’ll light a candle for you” or even a little pictogram depicting a lit candle:

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    another uses the nonsensical and appropriative phrase “spinning the karma wheel for you”; another says “I will lift you up to grace [/ healing / strength / etc as appropriate]” without specifying to whom, if anyone; and so forth.)

    It can be very tricky remembering the appropriate phrase for the appropriate group, and the effect of using the wrong one out of context can be startling, and hurt.

    Is there a need, do you think, to develop a more society wide “code phrase”? Or does this inevitably disintegrate into the Ins and the Outs?

    1. That’s a good question, hapax. I think we already have some language society-wide that is relevant: “I’m thinking of you,” and “I hope things get better.”

      Those are the best I can come up with because they don’t tackle the language of the divine or of magic/energy/intent. I think that anything that does involve those kinds of language does require at least some basic understanding between the people involved, so whether or not it degenerates into Ins and Outs, it does involve “I believe X” and “I am/not comfortable with Y” and all those complicated, emotionally fraught conversations.

      And even between people who share the same basic theaological view, prayer can be a difficult topic. I don’t remember where I read this, but there was a piece in the last few months about “when is it alright to stop praying?” Specifically, the author was somewhat taken aback by people saying on a regular basis that they would pray for a family member’s medical condition, when as far as could be determined or expected, said condition was congenital and as a result (due to the specific details of the condition) immutable.

      I think you’re absolutely right that people who have extant relationships that include some understanding of each other’s positions and comfort zones can offer stronger forms of support, especially when the relationship extends to having enough understanding of the person’s own wishes to know whether to pray for X to be fixed or for person Y who has X to have the strength/grace/patience/funds/whatever to cope with X. That’s a lot like knowing the boundaries of physical contact with friends vs acquaintances, or the kind of unspoken communication of consent that goes on in longstanding intimate relationships. But absent those kinds of awareness, I don’t know. As a minority who has had the majority approach shoved down my throat too many times – even with nothing but good intent, and in cases where I likely would have consented had I been asked, especially if the person understood that they weren’t praying to the same deities I do – I tend to err on the side of caution specifically in cases where I *don’t* know the person.

      And yes, that’s frustrating. I *want* to send good intent in so many cases, and I’m still struggling with how to cope with things like this in practice, especially because it’s so context-dependent.

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