People’s attitude to government prayers

Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted a survey in relation to the of the upcoming ruling by the US Supreme Court on the Greece prayer case that I have written extensively about. It asked 833 people two questions.

The first question asked: There is a case about praying in town councils and other meetings with public officials. Have you heard about this case, or not?

62% hadn’t heard of it, while 37% had. When disaggregated, Republicans and those over 60 years were more likely to have heard of it while there was not much difference by race and gender.

The second question asked: Some say…[rotate]…public meetings shouldn’t have any prayers at all because prayers by definition suggest one belief or another. Others say prayer at public meetings is fine as long as the public officials are not favoring some beliefs over others. Which comes closer to your view?

73% said that the ‘neutral’ prayer should be allowed while 23% said that all prayers should be banned. The strongest supporters of the neutral prayers were Republicans with 88% but there was not much difference in the other categories.

While interesting the results are not surprising, since generic prayers likely appeal to people as being the middle ground between the controversial poles of no prayer and sectarian prayer. But I would not put too much stock in the results, especially the disaggregated ones. The total sample size is small and gives a margin of error of 3.3%. The sizes of the subgroups would be smaller and so the margin of error would be even larger.

But while most say they think that a neutral prayer is acceptable, the problem is that any prayer that is dictated by the government, even in general outline, becomes a de facto government prayer and thus highly dubious constitutionally. It is this Catch-22 that the Supreme Court will have to confront if they are to uphold the constitutionality of such prayers.


  1. says

    73% said that the ‘neutral’ prayer should be allowed

    By which they mean ….?

    “O supreme being, of whom we know not nothing, bless this meeting in whatever mysterious way thou blessest things! We beseech and implore you in your nebulousness to do what your nebulousness pleases because thou rollest thus, always. Amen.”

  2. doublereed says

    They mean either a “ceremonially deist” prayer or a nondenominational Christian prayer.

  3. says

    a nondenominational Christian prayer.

    I have a problem with that.

    Deists, you can just snicker at them, because they are worshipping themselves, really. But the nondenominational christians are worshipping the great evil yahweh.

  4. Hatchetfish says

    That ridiculous but perennial belief that a state endorsed prayer is constitutional, because it’s a nondenominational christian prayer, always reminds me of the bar in The Blues Brothers;

    Elwood: “Uh, what kind of music do you usually have here?”
    Chipper bartender: “Oh we got both kinds! We got country and western!”

    In other words christians, when you say this, it proves our point.

  5. Kevin Kehres says

    I wonder what the reaction would be asking whether Muslim and Hindu prayers should be a regular part of a city council meeting?

    When the respondents are being asked about “generic” prayer, they’re not thinking about “non-Christian” prayer. They’re thinking about the generic non-denominational Christian prayers that we are soaked in everywhere.

    Put some specifics in that question. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, pagan, wiccan … see how far you get with that idea.

    Government should not be in the business of either promoting or placating religion.

  6. John Horstman says

    @Marcus Ranum #1: And it would really need to be, “Oh supernatural being or beings that may or may not exist and about which we know nothing…” Religions disagree about number of gods, whether they *are* “supreme” in any sense, etc.

    There is no such thing as non-sectarian or “neutral” prayer; secularism is the only option to avoid favoritism. People who think “neutral” prayers are a compromise are simply wrong -- no prayer is a neutral option between an explicit assertion of the existence of some god(s) and an explicit assertion that there are no gods.

  7. Doug Little says

    I’d like to see this one recited.

    Ow LORD, who art on high, who has made the blades of grass, and the little tiny things that creep there in…. who has made the cricket bats, who has made hankies, who has made……. ….. ….. ALL things… bless thou this people from Motörhead that the may so veryly endow the people of this planet with pleasure and enjoyment, that yay they may veryly increase fourfold their already large sums of loot and enable them, here in this life, to purchase maybe one other pair of trousers each. Oh lord, thou who has seen the trouserless and had compassion, look down upon them. Thank You.

  8. moarscienceplz says

    It is this Catch-22 that the Supreme Court will have to confront if they are to uphold the constitutionality of such prayers.

    Considering that at least 5 of the justices have demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t think the Constitution is worth as much as a piece of used toilet paper, I don’t think this issue will give them much trouble.

  9. petemoulton says

    Completely agree with moarscienceplz. For self-identifying originalists, those five have come up with some amazingly novel interpretations, and this case will be no different.

  10. Matt G says

    I wish I could remember (or find on the interwebs) the exact quote from Rev. Lovejoy of The Simpsons. When asked if he supported freedom of religion, he replied “Everyone is free to worship Jesus in their own way.” Or something to that effect.

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