One of the most common criticisms heaped upon people who identify as Christians, is that “you don’t think for yourselves.” This, apparently, in reference to the fact that Christians get their moral precepts from some “dusty, crusty 2000-year-old manuscript.” Of course, it can hardly be ignored that the cadre of people who offer this critique, predominately come to the same conclusion about some cultural event, while supposedly all thinking for themselves independently. When a bevy of otherwise biblically illiterate skeptics all start singing in unison from the same song sheet, you have to suspect that some organized campaign is responsible.
The most recent example of this herd mentality, is the excoriation of the high school football coach, Joe Kennedy, for insisting on his constitutional right to pray on the football field after the game (a practice that has been common in professional football for decades). Having lost the SCOTUS case, the aggrieved parties have predictably turned their ire toward the character of Kennedy himself. The gambit is to suggest that Kennedy is not following the admonition of Jesus in Matthew 6:5…
“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.”
This card has been played like a Stradivarius violin for decades in regards to church and state legal issues. You always know something is up when a secularist who has no respect for the scriptures, suddenly uses an isolated biblical passage to condemn a Christian freely exercising his or her faith. This technique in hermeneutics is known as “eisegesis,” that is, giving the passage one’s own interpretation, devoid of context, or failing to consider it in harmony with other scriptural passages on the same topic.
The real objective is even more devious. It is to shame the person of faith into voluntarily withdrawing from exercising his or her faith in the public sphere. “Free exercise” encompasses far more than “freedom of worship.” Free exercise of religion is the first right codified in the Bill of Rights. If someone had suggested that we have “freedom of speech,” but that freedom must be exercised only in one’s living room, the absurdity would be far more glaring.
In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus condemns at least three practices of the Pharisees. Drawing attention to their charitable giving in verse two, making ostentatious public prayers in verve five, and disfiguring themselves while fasting in verse 15. He condemns these practices because the intentions of the Pharisees were to be praised by men. The Pharisees wanted their piety to be well known. Thus, the request to pray privately must be understood in this context.
There are instances of public prayer being approved of in the Bible. Jesus does so in Matthew 15:36, and in The Sermon on the Mount. In 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul recommends public prayer. If Christ meant to never pray in public for any reason, then these references would be hopelessly in contradiction with the Matthew 6:5 passage. Even prayers in houses of worship would be prohibited since they are not private.
In the OT, Daniel prayed with his window open to be observed (Dan. 6:10). Solomon offered a great public prayer for the temple dedication (1 Kings 8:22).
We must point out that there is a clear distinction between prayer for the purpose of being "seen of men,"' and prayers given to denote the solemnity or solidarity of a given public function. Prayers at commencements, inaugurations and even in the U.S. Congress are common practices. My organization has a public prayer before the annual Christmas party dinner. This is not the practice Jesus is condemning, though. To me, Coach Kennedy’s actions fall into that latter category as well. And how do we know the coach doesn’t “pray in his closet” when it pertains to his private devotions?
The Pharisaical practices Jesus condemned didn't cause any hardship for the Pharisees. Nobody was going to get in legal trouble for praying publicly in Jesus’ time. On the other hand, Kennedy was suspended and lost his job for his convictions. He was in no way ostentatious. It was people on the outside that made it into a circus, which never would have happened had they not first forced Kennedy to cease his activities, thus stoking polarizing public sentiments.
Quite frankly, it is nothing short of preposterous that president Roosevelt prayed on national radio for the success of the D-day invasion without issue, but decades later, a coach can’t even kneel in prayer at the 50-yard-line.
I pointed out to one atheist from the U.K., that apparently following the commands of Jesus brings us to the precipice of atheism, given that so many atheists seem to happily school us in the finer points of Jesus’ teachings. His response was the non-sequitur that he didn’t want my religion crammed down his throat. And we must wonder how a non-citizen is harmed by a SCOTUS decision, anymore then I am harmed by some lunatic who moons the queen on London Bridge.
The popularity of the “pray in your closet” motif as used by skeptics, is clearly in the spirit of Saul Alinski who I shall paraphrase as such: hold your opponent to his standard while professing no standard by which you can be held to account. Proof of that is simple. Every skeptic I have encountered besmirches the character of coach Joe Kennedy as an attention seeking opportunist based on Matthew 6:5 in isolation. Yet, in their hasty condemnation of Kennedy, every one of them conveniently ignores the admonition that begins the next chapter “judge not, lest ye also be judged” (Matthew 7:1) in isolation.
Beware of skeptics quoting scripture.© Robert Meyer
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