As many of you know, I’m privileged to serve on a panel for the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, a weekly “conversation on religion and politics.” I’d invite you to visit the site, which I think you’ll find contains some robust dialog. All of my contributions are archived here.
I’d like to share the latest installment of the feature with you. It concerns last week’s important and powerful gathering of Christians in Houston.
After you’ve had a chance to read the following perspective and reaction to the question, I’d love to hear from you.
Washington, Lincoln’s prayers for America
Q. In a critique of the revival, Frank Bruni wrote in his New York Times column that when it comes to fixing our country’s problems, “faith and prayer just won’t cut it. In fact, they’ll get in the way.”
Is Bruni right?
That’s really all the answer required for those who know the matchless comfort of the God of the universe inclining his ear to hear our petitions on behalf of our nation, our loved ones, our circumstances, our hopes, our fears and our dreams. Prayer provides perspective, connection, introspection, a calming effect, guidance from the Lord, wisdom … and the list goes on.
Not everyone, of course, shares that firsthand experience with or belief in the power of prayer – Mr. Bruni certainly seems to question it. So let’s take a few more sentences to put “The Response” into historical context. The difficulties facing our nation today, noted in the question above, are certainly challenging. But would any of us say they are more challenging than what our Founding Fathers faced when they forged this nation? They were attempting to build a representative form of government the world had never known, and they had to secede from and wage war with the world’s No. 1 superpower to do so. And from the first step of that uncertain journey, they looked to God for guidance.
“Be Thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable assembly; enable them to settle things on the best and surest foundation,” reads a portion of the first prayer of the Continental Congress of Sept. 7, 1774. “That the scene of blood may be speedily closed; that order, harmony and peace may be effectually restored, and truth and justice, religion and piety, prevail and flourish amongst the people.”
Far from considering that prayer would “get in the way,” America’s forefathers believed it to be “the way” to best ensure the success of their quest for independence, even declaring national days of thanksgiving and of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” at least twice a year throughout the Revolutionary War.
Fast forward a few years, to December 1777, one of the lowest points in the war. Gen. George Washington’s ragtag army looked increasingly as though it would fall to the British, as it endured a terrible winter at Valley Forge where “not less than 2898 men (are) unfit for duty, by reason of their being barefoot and otherwise naked.” With the sovereignty of the United States in question, eyewitness accounts report that Washington knelt before the Lord. Far from considering that prayer would “get in the way,” he believed it was “the way” to help him carry out his duties to his men and his country.
Washington publically prayed again at the war’s end, stepping down as commander in chief with victory secured, in a letter to the states he considered (at the time) his final statement of political advice to the nation.
“I now make it my earnest prayer,” Washington wrote on June 8, 1783, “that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
Far from considering that prayer would “get in the way,” Washington considered it “the way” to help grow a prosperous new country.
Then there’s Abraham Lincoln. In the thick of the Civil War, during his second inaugural address, he said: “Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Faced with the nation he led being violently and permanently torn in two, Lincoln did not consider that prayer would “get in the way”; he saw it as “the way” to – as he put it in the concluding words of his speech – “bind up the nation’s wounds.”
It remains so today. And not just for governments. As a family-help organization, we hear stories every day from people across the globe who credit prayer with helping keep a marriage together, bringing a wayward child home, giving a loved one the strength to overcome addiction. Even more important, as a Christian family-help organization, we hear from men and women – and children – who have prayed the most important, life-changing prayer there is: the prayer of repentance and of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Far from “getting in the way,” we believe that prayer is “the way” to eternal life.