Making Public ‘Prayer’ Inclusive

Making Public ‘Prayer’ Inclusive in a Highly Diverse Society

By Pastor James Coffin, Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

Having an invocation to open government-conducted, tax-funded public meetings is a time-honored tradition in the United States. Increasingly, however, as government-run public functions involve ever more diverse audiences, such invocations have become a point of contention—even litigation. So how should our nation’s Christian majority relate to such objections concerning the prayers, which are typically Christian, offered at such events?

It’s an excellent question. But before we address it, let’s consider a story. It’s an old story that dates back to the sixth century BCE. We find it in that imaginative collection of tales called Aesop’s Fables.

As the fable goes, Fox invites Stork to his home for a meal. Fox’s menu du jour is a delectable soup. The only problem is, Fox serves the soup in large, shallow bowls. The bowls are ideally suited for the lapping of a canine tongue. But the bowls make the soup inaccessible to a long-beaked bird. Fox enjoys the meal; but Stork goes away hungry.

Still, Stork returns the favor by inviting Fox to his home. Stork prepares an equally appealing meal, which he serves in very tall, thin, narrow-mouthed containers that are ideal for long-beaked birds but that make the food inaccessible to the shorter, broader snout of a canine. Stork enjoys the meal; but Fox goes away hungry.

One lesson we may draw from the fable—although this isn’t Aesop’s original lesson—is that all of us, as individuals and as groups, are prone to becoming so totally immersed in the way we’ve always done things that we fail to recognize that what’s greatly appreciated by me and my affinity group may not be appreciated by those not of my group.

Government-organized public prayer provides just such an example of an activity that doesn’t impact everyone in the same positive way. However, it’s the position of an increasing number of Christians that, with care, planning and context-appropriate approaches—and with an eye ever toward the Golden Rule—contention can be removed and no one needs to feel left out or offended.

A Christian Perspective

Because a “super majority” of our nation’s populace subscribe to some form of Christianity, the observations made here will primarily be directed toward Christian practices and perspectives. Nationwide, about 65 percent of the population are self-declared Christians. The remaining 35 percent are: adherents to other faith traditions, atheists and agnostics, and a rapidly growing group who don’t identify with any faith—“none of the above,” thus they’re frequently dubbed “nones.”

Christianity revolves around the life and teachings of Jesus. And at the very heart of Jesus’ teaching is what we call the Golden Rule. He stated that we should treat others as we would want to be treated if the tables were turned (Matthew 7:12). But he went one step further: He said that all other spiritual obligations find their foundation in this simple but profound principle of human concern and interaction.

Jesus certainly wasn’t the first to have advocated the Golden Rule. Religions that preceded Christianity also did so. And so have religions that have emerged since. Thus the Golden Rule is perhaps the nearest thing we have to a universally-agreed-upon spiritual standard of behavior. It becomes both the mandate for people of faith and the measure by which onlookers will inevitably judge the quality of faith.

Throughout this discussion of inclusive prayer at government events, the Golden Rule will remain front and center—because Jesus placed such importance on it. From a Golden Rule perspective, let’s note what may be—or may not be—context-appropriate in five specific categories of prayer.

1. Private Prayers

In private prayer—the kind Jesus suggested should take place in your own room with the door closed—you commune with deity in whatever manner is appropriate for you. Your  prayer may include a variety of bodily postures. It may be silent or audible. It may contain either memorized or extemporaneous petitions and outpourings. It may include confession of highly personal sins and impassioned requests for forgiveness and God’s blessing. It may take the form of a no-holds-barred, totally candid conversation with God about the hassles you’re having with your neighbor, your boss or your in-laws!

In private prayer, anything goes. But . . .  were one to offer such candid and unrestrained prayers in public, your neighbor, your boss or your in-laws might find your comments about them to be offensive—if not slanderous. Whether or not they take you to court is really beside the point, because revealing such private information in public prayer would be totally contrary to the Golden Rule. It would not be treating others in the way we ourselves would want to be treated if the tables were turned. So what’s totally appropriate in one context isn’t always appropriate in other contexts.

2. Congregational and Denominational Prayers

Congregations and denominations usually have long-established understandings of what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate when prayers are offered at their own gatherings.

Within Christianity there are far more forms of prayer than many may realize. For example, in some Christian settings, it would be appropriate to pray at a congregational or denominational gathering in some form of “ecstatic utterance,” often referred to as glossolalia or “speaking in tongues.”

Other groups of Christians may engage in loud, lengthy, intense prayers that are punctuated by a variety of bodily postures and verbal outbursts. Still other segments of Christianity invoke not only deity but also a collection of saints, who are invited to act as intermediaries between the petitioner and God.

Each of the foregoing—and many other options not here enumerated—would be totally acceptable in a given context. But outside of that context, such forms would likely be problematic, even among fellow Christians. Again, the Golden Rule is the guide. And usually people who engage in the foregoing forms of prayer are sensitive to the fact they shouldn’t automatically assume that such forms would be welcome in all Christian contexts.

3. Interdenominational/Ecumenical Prayers

From time to time Christians participate in interdenominational/ecumenical gatherings. Typically, one of the goals of such events is to create a spirit of fellowship and community that transcends denominational divisions. Certain types of prayer, such as those just described in Point 2—which may be totally acceptable in a congregational or denominational setting—wouldn’t be used, simply because they unnecessarily highlight theological and liturgical disagreements and would almost certainly leave some of those present feeling uncomfortable.

Now there’s no problem with disagreement between faith groups. But when the purpose of an event is to bring people together in a spirit of fellowship and community despite differences, there’s nothing gained by waving red flags and making some who are present feel ill-at-ease. The goal is to highlight commonalities and shared goals, and to avoid incompatibilities.

The prayers in interdenominational settings need to include all who are in attendance, in as equal a manner as possible. For example, it would generally be inappropriate to pray, by name, for the leaders or ministry of one denomination while ignoring the leaders or ministries of the other denominations present. It comes back to a simple, uncomplicated, commonsense application of the Golden Rule: Treat others as we would want to be treated if the tables were turned. We should seek to include—avoiding whatever excludes.

4. Interfaith Prayers

There was a time in many parts of the United States when “interdenominational” was as far as our accommodation of diversity went. Non-Christian faith traditions were so small in number that they were simply overlooked. They rarely even appeared on the Christian majority’s radar screens. Jews were somewhat the exception because their sacred writings are also sacred to Christians.

With demographic changes over the past few decades, however, the religious landscape is rapidly morphing in at least three ways: (1) Immigrants from the Middle East and Asia—like immigrants from Europe in the past—have brought their religious heritage with them. (2) Americans whose ancestors have lived here for generations have demonstrated an unprecedented interest in non-Christian faith traditions. (3) Some 35 percent of the U.S. population are adherents to non-Christian faith traditions, are atheists or agnostics, or choose not to identify with any faith, as already mentioned.

In the same way that Christians have recognized the benefit of interdenominational understanding and cooperation, a similar need has been recognized at the interfaith level. Throughout the United States, interfaith events are increasingly being held. In our own region, the Interfaith Council of Central Florida has become highly active, hosting activities themselves or participating in a variety of events initiated by others. At such events, participants come with the understanding that all are committed to spiritual values but definitely don’t share the same views of Ultimate Reality. In other words, we agree on some points and agree to disagree on others. But we seek to do it with understanding, with respect and as true friends.

At interfaith events, participants seek to share spiritual perspectives and prayers in a manner that provides insight and meaning without imposing expectations that would make some participants feel ill-at-ease. Particularly in prayers, the goal is to use a vocabulary that’s sufficiently broad that all present can give assent and feel blessed by the sentiments expressed. Where reference to deity is made, the goal is to use more universal, generic descriptions instead of proper names. Even such terms as “Heavenly Father” or “Lord” can create problems for those faith traditions that avoid gender-based terms when it comes to deity.

Does exhibiting such care and concern for the feelings of others mean we can never say anything about our particular view of God? Our faith? Our religious perspectives and practices? Not at all. For example, during interfaith discussions, during interfaith worship services, during celebrations to launch or conclude an interfaith venture, there are often opportunities to describe how a particular faith views some aspect of life, or why adherents to that faith celebrate certain ideas, events or deities as they do.

Few people are offended by learning about the perspective of another person or faith group—provided such presentations are informational, don’t seek to proselytize, and don’t imply superiority of one faith over another. The fact is, many people enjoy getting to know more about the beliefs and practices of others.

But interfaith prayer falls into an altogether different category. Interfaith prayer is a collective reaching out to the Reality That Transcends, however that reality is defined or named. And as much as possible interfaith prayer seeks a specific blessing or outlines specific desires on behalf of all who are gathered. It’s a communal exercise. It employs “we” terminology rather than “I” terminology because it’s speaking for the whole group—even though it’s one person who’s actually expressing the collective wishes and convictions. Interfaith prayer needs to be inclusive of the entire assembled group—very intentionally inclusive.

If a Muslim is offering the prayer on behalf of the group and asks Allah to ensure that the teachings handed down through the Prophet Muhammad are honored by every person present, some non-Muslims will likely become upset—because those teachings aren’t what typically guide their moral/spiritual life. If the one praying requests that the spirit of the Buddha permeate the life and actions of every person present and that we all become buddhas, it’s virtually guaranteed that some non-Buddhists will become uncomfortable.

If the prayer is given “in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior,” it’s equally certain that many non-Christians—who don’t view Jesus as their “Lord,” their “Savior” or the “Christ”—will feel uncomfortable, because the prayer doesn’t speak for them. Which brings us to a point that has at times created substantial tension between Christians and non-Christians concerning prayer in interfaith settings.

The phrase “in my name” appears numerous times in the teachings of Jesus. He warns about false teachers who would come “in my name.” He talks about doing good deeds—even miracles—“in my name.” And he promises that prayers offered “in my name” will be effective. He said we should pray to the Father, “in my name.” Thus, Christians routinely pray “in the name of Jesus.” Or even in longer versions, such as “in the name of Jesus Christ, our Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and the Lord of our life.”

Many argue that Christians are obligated to always pray “in the name of Jesus.” Military chaplains have even gone to court to defend their right to offer all their interfaith military prayers “in the name of Jesus.” To have to do otherwise, they say, would force them to violate their conscience. Committed to religious freedom as we Americans typically are, most of us would not want to see anyone forced to violate conscience concerning deeply held spiritual convictions about prayer.

But the story is a little more complex than some seem to recognize. It’s worth noting that Christians quite universally do offer prayers that aren’t delivered “in the name of Jesus.” For example, in the Hebrew scriptures (which Christians include in their sacred canon) we find “blessings” that are routinely employed verbatim as prayers in Christian worship services and in spiritual ceremonies such as weddings.

A classic example of such a prayer is found in Numbers 6: 24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” The cadence of the foregoing beautifully phrased request for God’s blessing and presence isn’t typically disrupted in Christian usage by the addition of: “And these things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.”

A similarly beautiful prepackaged prayer exists in the Christian scriptures. It too makes no reference to Jesus. When Christians repeat—often in unison—what is referred to as the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13), they typically conclude the prayer with a simple “Amen.” They don’t break the cadence of the prayer by appending a standard Christian prayer conclusion such as, “These things we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.” So before too big an issue is made about Christians always having to pray in the name of Jesus or violate their conscience, it might be helpful to reflect on those situations where the “in the name of Jesus” formula routinely isn’t followed even by Christians.

Of course, there may be a handful of Christians who wouldn’t offer even the foregoing two prayers or other similar prayers without appending the name of Jesus. There may be those who feel that all prayers, absolutely and categorically, must be offered in Jesus’ name. No exceptions whatsoever. In such cases, as an act of Christian grace, such people might wish to decline invitations to pray in any context where they feel they must choose between violating their own conscience or creating discomfort for those who hold a different view of God.

There’s another consideration that’s also often overlooked: Does God appreciate promises and phraseology in prayers that even the person offering the prayer knows are not true? In interfaith prayers, it should be clear to the Christian petitioner that not everyone present—not everyone being included in the word “we”—is in fact reaching out to God in the name of Jesus. So a legitimate question is to ask whether we truly honor God when we say things in prayer that we know aren’t really true?

In dealing with such complexities, we ultimately come back to the Golden Rule, the foundation of all spiritual teaching. Again, how would Christians feel if, let’s say, the one offering the public prayer demanded the right to address the prayer specifically to Vishnu? Or to conclude the prayer with with a request for all to exhibit the spirit of the Buddha”? Remember, the heart of Jesus’ Golden Rule teaching is that we should treat others as we would want to be treated if the tables were turned.

Also, we must never forget that public prayers are almost always “we” prayers, not “I” prayers. So for our statements to have meaning, we need to ensure that anytime the person praying says “we,” the speaker should have a reasonable expectation that she or he is expressing the general feelings and commitments of the entire group and not just part of the group. Adjusting one’s prayer to be inclusive of all present shouldn’t be viewed as an abdication of one’s Christian spiritual principles but as an application of the very principle on which Jesus said all spirituality was based.

5. Diverse-Audience Public Prayers 

In the foregoing four categories, we noted that context may render inappropriate some forms of prayer that would be totally appropriate in another setting. The common element in all the examples noted so far is that those involved have a faith tradition and in their varied ways believe in the benefit of prayer. And the prayers already described typically take place in settings where the audience has assembled specifically for some spiritual purpose. As we’ve noted, the more diverse the audience, the greater the challenge in ensuring that the prayer is appropriately inclusive. But with intentionality, even in an interfaith setting, it can be done effectively—and is being done effectively every day by people throughout our nation and around the world.

A prayer for the general public, on the other hand (particularly at a government-organized, tax-funded event), poses a greater challenge still. It’s not reasonable to assume that all present are adherents of a faith tradition or that they even believe in the benefit of prayer. Typically, the group has assembled to address community matters, not to seek religious understanding or a spiritual blessing. The general public is often the epitome of diversity. In such a gathering, there may well be not only adherents of non-Christian faith traditions, but also atheists, agnostics and people who aren’t willing to wear the label of any faith traditions—those “nones” we mentioned earlier.

Does the Golden Rule apply to how Christians treat non-believers? Or are non-believers disqualified from Golden Rule treatment because they haven’t committed to the Christian God or any other deity? It’s worth noting that the Christian scriptures don’t seem as intimidated by skeptics as many Christians are. In Jude 22 we read: “Be merciful to those who doubt.” Thus it would seem logical that the Golden Rule applies equally to the no-faith segment of our society.

Now let’s go back for a moment to the ancient fable used to introduce our topic. Let’s say that those of us who are adherents to a faith tradition and believe in the benefit of prayer are members of the Fox family. Some of us may be coyotes, dogs or wolves, but we’re still in the Fox family. And the large flat bowls used to serve our meals quite adequately meet our common canine eating needs.

But should we just ignore the difficulties that our insistence on using bowls poses for the smaller but ever-growing number of Storks in our midst? (That group who don’t believe in God and who don’t believe in the benefit in prayer.) Does the minority status of Storks make them inconsequential? Or worse, just plain evil? Are Storks to be tolerated, at best? Or should the concerns of Storks and their feelings be seriously taken into account? As an act of Christian grace? As a part of our deep respect for the Golden Rule as Christians?

Have we forgotten that Storks also participate in school boards, city councils, legislative assemblies and the array of other events and structures that bring our entire diverse populace together? Have we forgotten that the decisions made in such venues have an impact on Storks as well as Foxes? Have we forgotten that the Storks also contribute to the tax base that builds, maintains and pays for the utilities used by the venues where such meetings typically take place?

So the question is worth repeating: Does the Golden Rule—treating others as we, the Fox family, would like to be treated—extend to the Stork family? Is there anything that would ever make the Golden Rule not apply to Storks? Or should the Golden Rule apply to Storks only if their numbers reach, let’s say, 40 percent of the population? Or 51percent? Or 67 percent? What would Jesus do concerning concerning the full inclusion of Storks?

The Challenge—and Opportunity—of Diversity

As our nation’s diversity increases, some of the once-familiar things around us change. And change—for many of us, at least—creates tension and fear. It causes some to long for “the good old days” when life wasn’t so complex. But the reality is, change has always been with us. And having to adjust has always been a challenge. However, the good news is that surprisingly often what was once fear-inducing becomes familiar, and then deeply appreciated.

Our nation’s changing demographics actually provide a unique opportunity for our respective faith and no-faith communities not only to get to know each other better but to demonstrate the true mettle of our highest spiritual/social values. Our cosmopolitan society creates a prime opportunity for the Christian majority and all other faith and non-faith traditions to show the depth of our commitment to applying the Golden Rule to everyone.

In fact, Jesus also advocated another principle of human interaction: He said we should go beyond the call of duty. Or, paraphrasing his words, we should “go the second mile”—even though our obligation might have technically been well and truly met by going simply one mile.

Are we suggesting that prayers should simply be done away with at the town council, the school board, the legislature and other such gatherings? No. A form of “prayer”—using the term prayer in its broadest sense—can do much to help set the tone for any gathering. It can focus the thoughts and create a sense of community, in preparation for an event.

But in the same way that private prayer should differ from congregational or denominational prayer, and congregational/denominational prayer should differ from interdenominational/ecumenical prayer, and interdenominational/ecumenical prayer will differ from interfaith prayer, “prayer” in the context of the general public (especially when government-run and tax-funded) will be most effective when it’s considerate of, and seeks to meet the needs of all who are present. In fact, using the term “reflection” rather than “prayer” may prove beneficial, since many in the choose-not-to-wear-a-religious-label group and in the atheist/agnostic group may have reservations about prayer as it’s usually understood and executed.

Too often those offering a public prayer simply follow a formula so familiar and so sectarian that they can construct it and deliver it on autopilot. Fortunately, others take their task far more seriously, carefully choosing words that are specific to the purpose of the gathering and designed to cause all listeners to actually “reflect” and “contemplate,” whatever their background.

It’s hard work to pray/reflect meaningfully on behalf of a highly diverse audience. And when the group includes people who don’t believe in deity or the usefulness of traditional prayer, it’s even harder—because the reflection needs to be so well thought through that it includes them just as much as it includes the people of faith. But it can be done—though few people can do it well without having written the reflection beforehand. Public prayer/reflection in a diverse context is not typically the ideal place to create prayers extemporaneously.

Grace at Its Best

Although it’s a challenge to be truly inclusive, it’s social/spiritual grace at its best. It’s the Golden Rule being acted out. In fact, it may be one of the best methods available to us to build bridges between those segments of the community that to some degree share faith perspectives and those that don’t. It’s an indication that, despite our differences, we’re so committed to the Golden Rule, and so committed to not discounting or dismissing any in our community, that we’re willing to stick with the task until we’ve created a reflection with true common denominators that ensure it will be a blessing for everyone present.

One of the beauties of moving from faith-based prayer in the context of government-organized, tax-funded public events to an all-inclusive reflection not directed toward deity is that such reflections can be as just applicable to non-Christian believers, to atheists, to agnostics and to the “nones” as they are to Christians. Moreover, these previously disenfranchised groups can now be included on the list of potential reflection presenters. It’s the Golden Rule in its full-blown form. It’s truly treating all in our community as we ourselves would want to be treated if the tables were turned.

In its decision on Greece v Galloway, a case dealing with prayer at government-organized, tax-funded events, the U.S. Supreme Court said that sectarian prayers at such events are acceptable. However, what is too easily overlooked is that the majority’s opinion was based on the information provided by the town of Greece (New York): “The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.” As a result of that statement in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, atheist/agnostic groups have begun requesting that various government entities put the names of their members on the invocation-provider lists. In Central Florida, the result has been the presentation of numerous secular reflections at an array of government events. And for the most part, the reflections they’ve provided have been well received and much appreciated. They’re usually invited back.

The apostle Paul said that some things that are lawful aren’t expedient. From a purely legal perspective, the case of Greece v Galloway established that prayers at government-organized events can be sectarian. While the Supreme Court can declare what’s legal and what isn’t, such rulings don’t necessarily build stronger communities. That’s where the faith community—especially the majority group within the faith community (Christians)—can play a highly positive proactive role by going the second mile with respect to the invocations they offer at at government-organized, tax-funded events. The Supreme Court merely said that prayers at government-sponsored, tax-funded events can be sectarian. It didn’t say they have to be. Or even that they should be.


Is what’s described here hard work? Yes. No question. Is it in harmony with the highest values of Christianity, the highest values of all other faith traditions, and the highest values of those who are agnostic, atheist or who choose not to affiliate with any faith tradition? Absolutely. Does such an approach require intentionality, determination and a high view of all humanity? Certainly.

Will such an approach help to create a stronger, more caring, more supportive, more harmonious, more peaceful, more united, more effective community? If many of us as Christians weren’t overwhelmingly convinced that it will, we wouldn’t go to the effort required to articulate these thoughts and make them available to others.

The task may be challenging, but the concept is simple: We simply must treat everyone as we would want to be treated if the tables were turned—as we would want to see prevail if we were in the minority rather than the majority. It’s called the Golden Rule. It’s called going the second mile. And it’s as applicable today as it was millennia ago.

Click here for an archive of samples of both non-sectarian theistic prayers and non-theistic reflections.