Bless This House
And the Senate too. But a couple of controversial morning prayers have some lawmakers saying a lot more than "Amen."
THE TEXAS LEGISLATURE COULD USE a little divine intervention. It is beset by a budget crisis that has legislators talking about canceling health insurance for children, closing colleges for the summer, and tossing thousands of people out of nursing homes. In such trying times, the practice of beginning each day’s work with a prayer by an invited minister ought to serve as a respite from the lawmakers’ worldly troubles. Instead, the morning prayer itself has twice become embroiled in controversy this session. Is there no rest for the weary?
The prayer dispute erupted in the House on the morning of January 30, when the Reverend Mark Moore, the pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church in Canton, offered an evangelical prayer in a voice as smooth as butterscotch. He quoted a passage from Colossians that describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” and as the one through whom “all things have been created.” Moore continued, “So therefore, under divine appointment and mandate, the members of this House of Representatives are subject to your kingdom.” He asked “in your Son’s name, Jesus Christ, that you breathe within each of these [members] the qualities and traits needed to govern in such a way as to not leave one single citizen behind.” The entire tone of his prayer, Moore explained to me later, was meant to get the House members to think about “validating God’s plans, not their own.” He ended the prayer with “in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.” Later, Democratic representative Scott Hochberg, of Houston, one of three Jews in the House, objected to what he considered the proselytizing tone of Moore’s prayer. Hochberg told House Speaker Tom Craddick that he and other non-Christians felt excluded from the prayer. Later he told a reporter, “The idea is to pray for us and the people of the state, and not at us.” Moore does not agree. He believes that it is his foremost job to provide the message of Christ and that no Christian minister should be expected to offer prayers that everyone—Buddhists, Jews, Muslims—embraces.
That raises the question: What exactly is the purpose of public prayer? Traditionally, it is meant to inspire and to unite through the acknowledgment of our relationship to God. Especially in a political setting, with its built-in diversity of race, religion, ideology, and geography, a prayer that excludes a portion of the audience defeats its purpose of reminding people of their commonality.
When a preacher prays before a governmental body, he finds himself right in the crosshairs of the ancient conflict between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Moore’s prayer did not give Caesar his appropriate due. It prompted House sergeant-at-arms Rod Welch to come up with new guidelines for House prayers. In effect, Welch determined that Caesar gets to set the rules for the morning prayer—and the rules now say that preachers should be “respectful of the diverse nature of the body” and promote “civility and tolerance.” The goal is that ministers offer prayers to which all members of the House can say “Amen.”
A similar controversy in the Senate centered on political, not religious, proselytizing. A few days after Moore’s prayer, Rabbi Barry Block, of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, stood before the Senate and started a prayer in blank verse that seemed benign. “To everything there is a season,/A time to every purpose under heaven,” said Block, his rich and persuasive voice invoking the familiar language of Ecclesiastes. “A time for despair:/For weeks, even months,/Senators struggled./So many needs,/Too few resources.” So far, so good. Several senators’ heads nodded in agreement as he talked about a time to die, a time to mourn, a time to work, a time to serve—until he spoke the lines that plunged the Senate into a prayer dispute of its own: “Women’s well-being requires resources;/Planned Parenthood saves lives; / Reproductive freedom is a cherished American liberty.” As suddenly as the weather can change in Texas, so did the atmosphere in the Senate—from calm to stormy. Block, who is the immediate past chairman of the Planned Parenthood affiliate in San Antonio, had, like Moore, prayed at the lawmakers. The next day, Senate parliamentarian Walter Fisher excluded Block’s prayer from the Senate journal because it was too political. But Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst countermanded Fisher and ordered that the prayer be printed in full, insisting—rightly—that the Senate should not be in the business of censoring prayers.
Block’s defense was similar to Moore’s. “I could not in good faith offer a prayer if I was told I could not exhort the Senate toward a moral position that I believe is crucial,” Block told me. But he too was wrong: If Moore had rendered to God instead of Caesar, Block had rendered to Caesar instead of God.
It shouldn’t be this hard to ask God to bless the Texas Legislature. For years members of the House and the Senate have picked their preachers-of-the-day to offer prayers as a way to remind their colleagues of their noble task and to encourage them to think about what is right, not just political gain and loss. The invited ministers understood without having to be told that it wasn’t up to them to tell members what was right or wrong or to try to save their souls.
What makes for a good morning prayer? I put this question to former lieutenant governor Bill Hobby, who heard a lot of prayers between 1973 and 1991. His initial response was “Anything that makes the senators stop chatting with each other and gets them in the mood for work.” One prayer, he said, struck him as just about perfect. It was given by Gerald Mann, the pastor of Riverbend Church in Austin, on the closing day of the session in 1979. When silence filled the high-ceilinged chamber, Mann said, “Lord, help us remember that a legislative session is like a love affair. Any fool can start one, but it takes genius to bring one to a successful conclusion.” And all the senators said, “Amen.”
This prayer embodies what ministers should consider the basic rules for offering a suitable prayer before the Legislature. Rule number one: Keep it short. Both God and the Legislature have a lot to do. Think in terms of instant messaging, not filibusters. Rule number two: Humor helps. The only people on earth who take themselves more seriously than politicians are preachers. Better to make ’em laugh than contribute to the pretense. Rule number three: Don’t lobby the Legislature. Leave the lobbying to the pros. Rule number four: Read the papers. A minister who wants to pray for the Legislature would be wise to consider what’s going on in its unique universe. Hobby recalls another Gerald Mann prayer, during the Killer Bee incident of 1979, when twelve senators, attempting to kill a bill they opposed, went into hiding to prevent the Senate from having a quorum. The Senate ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to arrest the missing senators and return them to the Senate chamber. Mann jotted down two possible prayers for the day, based upon whether the Killer Bees stayed away or returned. One said, “Lord, without a quorum, we ain’t got a prayer. Amen.” When the Killer Bees showed up, however, Mann prayed, “Lord, remind us of one of the great lessons of history—the bee always fertilizes the flower it robs. Amen.” Finally, rule number five: Remember that the Texas Legislature needs neither sermons nor political advice, just God’s blessing upon it.
My own idea of a perfect public prayer is one simple and true enough that it actually produces the emotion it proclaims. No minister could do better than the few words often invoked by the late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock as he adjourned the Senate. When all else fails, “God bless Texas” is hard to beat.