Graduation prayer: learning the wrong lessons

Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) means being raised with a set of stories all Baptists share. Each of these stories illustrates an important principle of faith that we must hold close to our heart. We never question these stories because they are written into scripture and therefore they usher forth directly from the mouth of God.

Famous bible stories

One of those stories came from the book of Daniel1, the story of Hananiah (חֲנַנְיָה), Mishael (מִישָׁאֵל) and Azariah (עֲזַרְיָה). Most Baptists won’t recognize these three because Baptists call them by their Chaldean slave names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Gustave Dore’s rendition of the triumphal salvation of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Most Baptists won’t recognize those names even though we learned about them in countless Sunday Schools.

I find this ironic because the story is about cultural oppression and forcing people to submit to the cultural expectations of society at large. Somehow we overlook this and still refer to these Hebrew heroes by their slave names.

In the story, our three heroes are ordered to follow the religious practices and cultural customs of the empire. But they don’t. They don’t eat spiced meat (aka steak with salt and pepper or A1 sauce) or drink spiced wine. But the worst atrocity was forcing our heroes to pray to the Chaldean Gods.

These guys could have done the safe thing and simply bowed their heads when the Chaldeans prayed, and pretended to go along with the show. But real Hebrews didn’t do that, and they chose to be burned to death rather than appearing to pray to Babylonian gods. The Hebrew God saves them, of course, but that isn’t the point of the story.

And the moral to the story is….

The point of the story is that the faithful are willing to die rather than bow their heads in prayer to a God (or god) they don’t worship. And sorry, Christians, but I have to include Jews as the faithful because the story was about them and not us. We’re just an afterthought to scripture.2

Baptists always took a second, subtextual lesson from the story. In a Christian society (i.e., America) we shouldn’t be forced to pray to other gods.

But I think we should see an additional, parallel lesson. Imagine how American Christians would feel if we were forced to participate in meetings where the speakers led us in prayers to Allah. We would be furious, and rightly so.

How dare they?

American Christians would be equally distressed if we were asked to bow our heads and experience the wonder of a universe without a god, but driven by natural forces and laws. We would blow our stacks if the speaker lead the audience in thanking the randomness of nature for the probabilities that came to pass that allowed us all to gather in this place in this time.

I know this because as an arts and political activist I’ve had to work with groups who expected me to participate in shamanistic prayer and drum ceremonies, visualize the spirit of Gaia working on the world around us, thank the goddess for her feminine blessings and allowing us to reject our masculine nature, or channel whatever spiritual being was in vogue that year.

Once I even had to sit through a session where the facilitators consulted the I Ching to resolve a disagreement. Ironically, the I Ching said we should do what I had been saying all along. But now it was a message from the universe itself and not just my opinion. So I got no credit at all.

Each time I thought: This is bull shit. This meeting isn’t about spreading the universal consciousness, it’s about arts funding or organizing an action against the city council or developers. Still, I did it out of respect, not for the vision of the month club, but for the work we needed to do and my partners in the work.

After all, I was raised BPK and remembered how many times Christians made people sit through prayers at civic meetings, or my family expected Jewish friends to say the blessing at dinner.

Had my school, or university, or the City of Detroit or Austin made the participants rise and chant to Seth, however, I would have been the first to say, “Excuse me, but this has no place in a government sponsored forum.”

I’m not talking about a school sponsored seminar on New Age religions or a city sponsored round table of religious leaders concerned about policy. This is America and everyone has the right to say, “I’m Christian and I believe evolution is wrong,” and every one else has the right to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Did God ask you to cut out the left side of your brain while you were thinking about it?”

I’m referring to a speaker asking everyone in the audience at a graduation ceremony to stand up and join in a prayer to Allah, or the Divine Spirit, or the random and godless universe. Who would be the first to piss and moan and call out the lawyers and Republican legislators before the diplomas were even handed out?

Christians. And Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

So why is it that when a Texas court says Christians can openly avow their faith, but they can’t tell an audience to participate in the rituals of our faith, those same Christians and Texas politicians are the first to howl at the moon as though we had all been publicly circumcised without anesthetic?

The prayer wars erupt in Texas

This week a San Antonio court ruled that valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand couldn’t lead the audience in a prayer during her graduation speech. Now, in Angela’s defense, she claims she just wanted to pray while delivering her speech, but that means we all pray with her.

I somehow doubt Angela wanted to say, “As Christians we pray things like, ‘Dear God help us be all the Christian we can be.'” She wanted to pray a real prayer, not an example prayer, and Christian protocol dictates that when one of us prays publicly we all pray publicly.

By Thursday evening the Austin local news was reporting that Angela was even receiving death threats for her virtuous stand. I’ll confess that it’s possible someone called and said, “I hope you die, bitch,” but I couldn’t find any record of these death threats in the reporting online (and our local newscasters are often given to exaggeration and hyperbole).

According to Reuters, even though the court ruled that affirmative religious statements were permissible, Gregg Abbott retaliated with the following: “This is part of an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting, while at the same time demanding from the court increased yielding to all things agnostic and atheistic….”

The article reported that Abbott believed the “ruling would allow a student to ‘bend over in honor of Mecca,’ but not lead a prayer to the Christian God.” Sorry, Gregg, but the judge said nothing about Mecca, and the ruling covered all state-sanctioned religion, including Islam.

Forget the courts, WWJS?

So let’s review three emphatic teachings of Jesus that may shed light on the situation:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Don’t pray in public. Pray in private where only God can hear you.3
  • Don’t judge others or God will judge you as harshly.

I take this to mean the following:

  • If you don’t want to be asked to publicly to pray to gods you don’t accept, don’t lead audiences at civic forums (whose members might not be Christian) in public prayer to Jesus. That’s what church is for.
  • You shouldn’t be praying in public anyway. That’s just showing off your piety, which, ironically, isn’t piety when you’re showing off.
  • Don’t judge others for not wanting to participate in your public prayers, especially since you would be offended if they expected you to participate publicly in theirs.

Angela, God bless you. If your faith is part of your life you should be proud to say so in your speech. But if you think you have the right to tell me I should be Christian and expect me to pray just because I came to see my nephew graduate, then ask yourself what you would do if I asked you to bend over toward Mecca in my valedictory speech.

Or used my valedictory speech to tell you that Christians who don’t believe in evolution aren’t Christians, they’re morons. Or told my audience why Episcopalians are better Christians than Baptists or Catholics.4

Are you beginning to see how Corwin Schultz might feel when he has to listen to you telling him what a loser he is for being agnostic? Especially when he has to listen before he can get his diploma? With the school’s sanction no less, which in essence is the local government saying “We endorse Angela’s message that you’re an agnostic loser who doesn’t deserve to get his diploma without being reminded of that?”

Personally, I’m immune. I heard that stuff all my life. I get it, my Jesus isn’t as good as your Jesus. I’ve got it all wrong and I’m going to suffer for it, and they only tell me this because they love me and it’s for my own good.

And, fortunately, I’m an adult so I don’t have to sit and listen to it anymore. I get to choose who I respect enough to be expose myself again—whether they be Christians, Wiccans or Bill Maher. Or my Baptist Preacher’s Family.

It may not be over

It’s my understanding that the higher court merely lifted the injunction against prayer at the graduation ceremony, they didn’t dismiss the suit. So it’s quite possible that the Schultz family will win the suit and this furor will start all over again.

Jesus never forced anyone to pray, nor did he demand it or even expect it. He preached from hillsides, and people were free to leave at any time. He never spoke during a state sponsored assembly where audiences were compelled to listen. And if his audiences didn’t want to listen, he just moved on to another town.

He knew there would always be someone who wanted the good news. There was no need to force it on those who didn’t.


1A designation that probably proves I have lapsed beyond redemption (although technically that can never happen to Baptists). A true member of the Baptist faithful would never type book of Daniel even as a typo. It’s Book of Daniel.back

2This thought may upset a few Christians even more, but New Testament writers did not consider their writing scripture. And Jesus certainly didn’t. To them our guide was the Law and the prophets. Nowhere did they invoke the new believers to study “our writing” or give their correspondence any special status.back

3I’m not going to cite chapter and verse. You know damn well he said it.back

2We aren’t, I just can’t help but thinking that being Episcopalian is like eating at a four star restaurant instead of MacDonalds. Or reading War and Peace instead of the Cliff Notes. Or drinking a fine Shiraz instead of Annie Green Springs. Or watching Doctor Zhivago instead of Dumb and Dumber.
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