So far this legislative session there have been 39 invocations at the Texas Capitol, a gathering place for people of all religions, no religion and those somewhere in between. Thirty-seven of the invocations were offered by Christians. There’s been one Jew and one Muslim (and the latter caused some tension).
Twenty-five of the House and Senate invocations mentioned or were offered in the name of Jesus Christ.
Depending on the beliefs of the beholder (including Jews like me), that last statistic means some of the prayers may not have been viewed as for folks of all religions (not to mention what it means for people of no religion).
More importantly, it also means those prayers tested legislative instructions requesting nonsectarian invocations. History tells us that before the session ends May 27 there’ll be additional invocations offered by rabbis and perhaps other non-Christians. But the overwhelming majority will come from Christians, perhaps appropriately in a state and a Legislature in which Christianity prevails among people of faith.
Over the years, invocations that mention Christ have been a source of irritation among some non-Christian legislators. But, aware of the enmity that could be invited by complaining, the complaints often are not aired publicly.
In the House, invited clergy get a letter saying “the Texas tradition is for a prayer that is nonsectarian and that promotes civility and tolerance, a prayer that acts to bring persons together” and that avoids “political or partisan matters.” In the Senate, clergy are told the prayer “should be of a general nature, nonsectarian and nonpolitical. Due to the religious diversity of the Senate and of the general population of Texas, please be mindful of your terminology and respectful of other faiths.”
I’ll let you decide whether a prayer that mentions Christ is nonsectarian. The “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” says nonsectarian means “Not sectarian, not confined to or affiliated with any specific religion.”
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio and one of the Legislature’s four Jews, said the clergy offering the invocations are invited by individual members. He said this year’s invocations have been “very thoughtful and I have felt, for the most part, they’ve been inclusive.” Straus said he does not feel excluded from the invocations that mention Jesus. And he said he has not “given a moment’s thought” to whether such prayers are nonsectarian.
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin and a Unitarian Universalist (a denomination that does not require belief in a supreme being) said prayers that mention Jesus are not nonsectarian. She favors a moment of silence instead of an invocation.
“I think people can pray in whatever way they want to,” she said. “I think it would be nice whenever you’re in a place where you’re representing everyone that you be more inclusive and if you want to reference you’re own particular tradition then to perhaps allude to the fact that you are recognizing your own particular tradition and there others that are out there.”
“I’m a proponent of separation of church and state,” Howard said, “and I don’t know that we need to have invocations before governmental meetings, but I am here to work on other things so that hasn’t been my primary focus.”
I asked my rabbi, Neil Blumofe of Congregation Agudas Achim, if a prayer that mentions Jesus can be nonsectarian. “In a pluralistic society, the short answer is no, I do not,” he said.
Blumofe, who has twice given legislative invocations, said he understands that for some Christians a prayer must mention Jesus. And Blumofe believes it’s far better to have invocations, even if “imperfect,” than to do away with them.
“I think it creates a better bond among neighbors to be able to do that and create more opportunities for getting to know who we all are,” he said.
After his Feb. 14 House invocation, I asked Kevin Withem of Austin’s Westover Hills Church of Christ, who offered his prayer “in the name of Jesus Christ,” if he believes such a prayer is nonsectarian.
“I do because I’m the one leading the prayer and as a minister of the gospel of Christ I’m ordained in scripture to pray through the name of Jesus,” he said. “But I believe I can pray for others through his name.”
Fair enough, but I find myself appreciative of invocations such as the one delivered Jan. 29 by Michael A. Evans Sr., pastor of Mansfield’s Bethlehem Baptist Church, in the House. Evans broadened his prayer by offering it “in the name of the one who I call my Christ — others call you their creator; others call you their counselor, helper and sovereign one.”
Less well-played, I thought, was the Feb. 11 House invocation from Don Garner, pastor of the Capitol Commission. “Father,” he prayed, “grant each one in this chamber today, and their family members, a lively faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Well-intentioned though it was, I felt it was not proper for a pastor, in a governmental setting, to pray that everyone in the chamber find a “lively faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Capitol Commission’s website says its purpose is to “strive to initiate a movement for Christ in the political arena in Texas” and mentions the need “to win the lost to Christ through the timeless truth of the gospel.” The effort includes weekly Bible study sessions at the Capitol for legislators.
Interestingly, the invocation text in the House and Senate journals (taken from what’s submitted by those offering the prayers) sometimes differs from what’s actually said. The Senate Journal says Waxahachie Baptist Church’s Bruce Zimmerman’s Feb. 5 prayer included a call for senators to act “decisively and effectively without fear, putting the good of citizens above personal gain, re-electability or pressure from special interest groups.”
Zimmerman, however, left out the part about putting the citizens’ good above “re-electability or pressure from special interest groups.” Some things, perhaps, can be too much to pray for.
So far, the only non-Christians offering invocations were Rabbi Eliezer Langer of Austin’s Tiferet Israel, in the Senate on Monday, and Islam Mossaad of the North Austin Muslim Community Center. Aware of concerns and ignorance about Muslims, Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, noted in his Jan. 31 introduction that Mossaad “was born and raised in the United States.”
After an Islamic chant, Mossaad began with a broad appeal to “creator of Adam, rescuer of Noah, one God of Abraham, oh most holy who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, oh most compassionate who blew into Mary mother of Jesus from your blessed spirit, and oh infinitely wise who chose Mohammed as your last messenger to be a herald of mercy to all of the nations and worlds.”
That day’s most divisive note came later when Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, offered a resolution honoring Texas Muslim Capital Day. Routinely, sponsors of such resolutions ask for and get permission to add all members’ names as co-authors. In a nod to the divisiveness attracted by anything Muslim, Burnam skipped that motion. “I want to respect your individual rights on that regard. But I want to invite all of you to come to the clerk’s room and sign this resolution,” Burnam, who already had four co-authors, told colleagues. Nineteen of the 150 House members signed — 17 Democrats and two Republicans.
The resolution was approved on a voice vote. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, was the only House member to formally register a “no” vote.
“I had just attended the (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) brunch on Sunday and I just felt that it wasn’t the right time to have a Muslim day,” Davis told me. “We don’t have any other types of days like that in the House.”
In addition to testing the rules about nonsectarian prayers, some invocations stray into politics. On Jan. 8 in the House, the session’s opening day, Bishop Michael Mulvey of the Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi said, “During this session we ask that human life be respected from the moment of conception in the mother’s womb.” In the Senate on Feb. 11, Father John Calgaro of Austin’s Cristo Rey Catholic Church prayed for lawmakers to “see and appreciate the dignity of every citizen and resident of this state … (including) those little ones who are waiting to be born in their mother’s womb.”
It’s interesting to note that the Hawaii Senate, facing possible litigation, last year did away with its daily invocation. That came despite a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a Nebraska case, that said daily legislative prayers by a state-paid chaplain were OK. Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the 6-3 majority, said such prayers are “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
“To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an ‘establishment’ of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country,” Burger wrote.
A dissent written by William Brennan and joined by Thurgood Marshall said “official invocational prayer, as it exists in Nebraska and most other state legislatures, is unconstitutional … (and) excessive ‘entanglement’ between the State and religion.”
“In the case of legislative prayer,” he wrote, “the process of choosing a ‘suitable’ chaplain, whether on a permanent or rotating basis, and insuring that the chaplain limits himself or herself to ‘suitable’ prayers, involves precisely the sort of supervision that agencies of government should if at all possible avoid.”