The Privilege and Peril of Public Prayer

Recently I had the honor of offering the invocation at the swearing-in ceremony by Vice-President Pence for Mrs. Lisa Hershman for her position as the Chief Management Officer for the Department of Defense. Mrs. Hershman is eminently qualified for this role and is the first woman in the history of our country to be appointed to this level of responsibility at the Pentagon. I am very thankful that she and her husband Brandt, the former Senate Majority Leader in the Indiana Senate, wanted public prayer as part of the ceremony.

Events like these raise several questions. Should the speaker pray in Jesus’ name? Should the presence of people of other religious beliefs or none-at-all be acknowledged? Is it even appropriate to have prayer at a ceremony in a government building?

I came to the conclusion years ago that I would only pray in any setting if I was allowed to pray in Jesus’ name. My understanding of Scripture is that my entrance to the throne of God is secured by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Religious liberty is only meaningful when practiced robustly and authentically. I also believe it is part of my responsibility to acknowledge the presence of others who may believe differently. In a public setting, the joy that people with differing beliefs bring to the occasion should also be celebrated. Otherwise religious liberty becomes constraining and monolithic.

After seeking counsel from several trusted advisors, this is the text of what I chose to say:

Dear Heavenly Father,

We thank you for the religious liberty we enjoy in our country, so that while I can pray in a way that is consistent with my beliefs, others can pray simultaneously in a way that is consistent with theirs or not at all. We know that many men and women have sacrificed greatly, and some supremely, so that we could exercise these freedoms today–and we thank you for their dedication and courage.

Father, thank you also for giving us clear instruction in your Word about the role of government and even the military. We know that while Jesus Christ came as the Prince of Peace and died for the sins of man, you clearly instituted government in a fallen world to be as the apostle Paul said — “a minister of God, never bearing the sword in vain, as an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

Lord, we pause and pray for our active-duty servicemen and women here and around the world who are selflessly stepping in harm’s way to protect others. Father–we pray for their safety today and every day. We ask you to encourage their hearts with the knowledge that they are greatly appreciated and loved. We also pray for their family members – spouses, children, parents, extended family members and friends – who live with the daily pressure and uncertainty that comes from having a loved one in our military.

Father, thank you for all the faithful and effective civil servants across our nation. As a life-long Hoosier, I praise you for the impact Vice President and Mrs. Pence, and former State Senator and Mrs. Hershman, had on the State of Indiana.  We enjoy great bounty and blessings because of the way they modeled such effective servant leadership in our state – we recognize them as a gift from your good hand.

Lord, today we want to especially thank you for Ms. Lisa Hershman. We praise you for her intellect, her integrity, her courage, and her deep faith. You gave her those abilities…and she has stewarded them well. Now we ask that along with this appointment today, you would supply all the stamina, and wisdom, tenacity, and godly character necessary to serve our nation in this position. Please bless the faithful work of her good hands.

Lastly Father, we praise you for how this appointment represents freedom at its very best. Thank you that in the United States of America, it doesn’t matter about a person’s gender, or ethnicity, or religion, or so many other characteristics we could name. What matters is who is most qualified to do the job. Yes, we recognize that in our country, work and progress are still needed to perfectly achieve those ideals. But may today be a shining light to our country, and in our world…that we truly believe in liberty, and justice for all.

We pray in Jesus name. Amen

As I left Washington, DC, I found myself feeling profoundly thankful. I praise the Lord for men and women who want prayer to be included in a ceremony like this. It is humbling to think about the people in the past who gave their lives so we could exercise our religious freedoms in this way. Yes, our country is imperfect in many ways. But our great King has given us a place to live that is extraordinarily free. May God bless America as we seek to trust in Him.

Steve ViarsSteve Viars
Dr. Viars has served as a pastor and counselor at Faith since 1987. He is an author, national speaker, and Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Biblical Counseling Coalition.