mercredi, août 19, 2009

Saturday's column on prayer

Reflecting on prayer, government

Are religion and politics ever good bedfellows?I have to admit that’s what I was wondering after I heard about the tempest that erupted in Harrisburg over a prayer as our legislators wrestled (and wrestle) with a budget impasse that has paralyzed local municipalities.The flap occurred when the policy of vetting the prayers that open House sessions to make sure that they didn’t cause offense (or a potential lawsuit) collided with Adams County pastor Gerry Stolzfoos’ desire to pray in the name of Jesus.

The policy was recently implemented because a guest clergyman gave a prayer so offensive to many members that they walked out, said House Speaker Keith McCall’s Chief of Staff Paul Parcells. “We ask them to give an interfaith, non-denominational prayer.”An avalanche of phone calls, e-mails and faxes hit McCall’s office.

Parcells says he’s still rather distressed by the hellfire and brimstone heaped upon McCall and his staff by talk show hosts, bloggers and outraged out-of-state e-mailers.‘The speaker is a pretty devout Catholic, but he doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve,” said Parcells. “I’m really disappointed, as a Christian (and son of a Baptist preacher), about how many calls and letters we got.”

In the wake of the controversy, the policy of previewing the prayers was repealed — and Stoltzfoos was invited to open a Senate session with a prayer, which he did in late July.In the Senate, prospective “chaplains” are asked in a letter to provide an interfaith prayer that respects the religious diversity of members of the chamber, said Drew Crompton, legal counsel to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati.“We’ve enjoyed the diversity and variety of different faiths,” said Crompton, who said that he found it meaningful when a Buddhist monk opened the session. Rarely are aspiring pray-ers rejected, although both an atheist and a Wiccan were “turned away” he added.

In some ways, prayer seems like an anomaly in chambers dedicated to secular concerns, with legislators who seek to govern an increasingly multicultural state in which many residents don’t self-identify with any particular faith.While Catholics still are the majority faith group in the state regularly attending worship, “unclaimed” Pennsylvanians (those without a known religious affiliation) outnumber them by more than a million, according to the 2000 Association of Religious Data Archives state membership report, with mainline and evangelical Protestants lagging far behind.

So why open with a prayer at all?Both Crompton and Parcells agreed that the prayer tradition was one very important factor. “Prayer for our members is a time of reflection and honoring tradition,” he commented. “It’s a short period of time, but a meaningful time.”I thought I’d ask a few members what those few moments at the beginning meant to them.

“I like a prayer to open the session for several reasons — most importantly a personal moment of reflection before starting ‘the business of the state’ — to contemplate a need to help and serve others,” said Sen. Mike Brubaker, whose district includes parts of both Chester and Lancaster counties.

“Believer or non-believer, part of the notion is that we are thoughtful about what we do, and it’s a time for recollection and reflection,” said state Rep. P. Michael Sturla.

Uneasy as I am when faith and politics, or pastors and politicians, get too chummy in public places, I came away from conversations with members and staffers convinced that there is a place for prayer on the legislative order of business.

It may be one of the few times when the legislature is in session that many members, tethered as they are to deadlines and cell phones and the exegencies of partisanship, get to reflect on what they are doing — and the personal faith, whether in God or in public virtue, that impels them.

America has a long history of dialogue and sometimes dispute between the claims of secular government and those of personal faith — which may be in part why the recent controversy aroused such strong feeling.

“It’s very difficult to protect prayer in a public setting, but I think we’ve done a good job,” said Parcells.

But will prayer resolve the budget crisis? I asked Crompton. “Maybe for some it will help resolve the budget impasse, and maybe not for others,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t want to overstate (its importance) or understate it.”

Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt if we prayed, too.

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