Stop the Invocation! Out with the Bastard!

By Merle Harton, Jr.

I attended a luncheon meeting yesterday with a spectrum of business leaders from the Mohawk Valley, and including Utica's mayor and our area's elected officials. The food was good, the presentations were interesting, but for me it was totally marred by THE INVOCATION, delivered with some solemnity by the Reverend so-and-so. I have a concern about this, or perhaps I am about to rant. Here's how this one was conducted. There were some introductions and then the Reverend was called to the podium to deliver THE INVOCATION and he spoke thus:

"Dear Holy God, we ask you to bless this meeting and to bless the blah blah and the blah blah. Blah, blah, we ask this is the name of all who have gone before. Amen."

Now, really, I ask you—what the hell was that? But wait, here's how it went at the conclusion of the luncheon. The Reverend was called back to the podium and thus again he spoke:

"Holy Father, thank you for blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, we ask this in the name of all that is holy. Amen."

I've heard this kind of thing many times before—this twisted abomination masquerading as prayer—but this one seemed too much for me, especially in full view of the past year's parade of the Ten Commandments people, the prayer-in-schools-will-solve-all-problems people, and Wednesday's can't-pray-this-pledge case before the Supreme Court. I think the invocation must go; I think we ought to ban the bastard from public meetings altogether. A moment of silence would be a good replacement: no one has to pretend anything at all.

I don't know that we can lay this at the feet of Benjamin Franklin, but he sure helped to popularize the invocation as a proper ceremony for public business. In 1787, Franklin suggested to the Constitutional Convention that the august body pray every day before conducting business and have the city's clergy officiate. Hence the hiring of chaplains for the House and Senate, and so Congress opens each day with a prayer. What Franklin said (in part) was:

"I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live the more convinced I am that God governs in the affairs of men. If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We are told, sir in the sacred writings, that 'except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without His aid we shall succeed in our political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests, our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword to future ages. I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberations be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate." [Source: Five Sermons by H.B. Whipple.]

As a consequence, though, we have ended up with something to offend everyone. And we are tricked into it by stealth. As a Christian, I am tricked into thinking that I am participating in corporate prayer to our Lord, praying in the name of Jesus Christ, only to find that there's been a bait-and-switch: I have instead been praying in the name of "All who have gone before" or "All that is holy" or "In His holy name" or "in Your holy name," etc., etc. The Jew gets tricked, and the Muslim gets tricked, and everyone else who has been melted in the melting pot called America, if not tricked, is offended—offended perhaps because they have been called to do something they really don't feel comfortable doing. So no one in fact gets what we want from this corporate prayer, because it's a surrogate, a simlulation perhaps, and not a very good one at that. It's become like a vestige of something from Robert's Rules of Order and no one knows how to stop doing it. It has become a perfunctory feel-good performance, not unlike innocent talk about angels, heaven, fairies, and leprechauns.

Let us bow our heads. Perhaps in silence, like the silence of assembled Friends, we can speak freely and sincerely with God—and with no other.

"Stop the Invocation! Out with the Bastard!"
From New Quaker Notebook (March 26, 2004)
Copyright © 2004 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved