[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.]
Speaking in the tongue of Christianity in an age of pluralism, the praying citizens of Greece, New York knew enough to keep it vague when bringing their supplications to town council. Winnifred Sullivan’s reflections on the legal wrangling over public prayer in the town council of Greece included examples of how Christians prayed for their town leaders to be “filled with the spirit of wisdom” and asked that their neighbours would come to see the virtues of “interrelationship.” Though recognizably Christian, these prayers addressed to a “Heavenly Father” were nevertheless “tamed by the law,” as Sullivan puts it, in their avoidance of Jesus-language and their studied evasion of deity specificity (except in terms of their gendered language of kinship).
Heading northward across Lake Ontario to Toronto, home of an infamous mayor, the idea of turning to banal, or better yet prophetic, prayers to bring some order to the chambers of City Hall seems like an eminently sensible plan. At a time when many politicians converse with each other in a manner disrespectful, mocking, and even lewd—when they care more about how their words will translate to sound bites and celebrity than how their exchanges will forward the cause of deliberative democracy—perhaps the call to prayer in public could also be understood as a call for genre intervention and not only divine intervention.
These days, lawmakers on both sides of the border are not often known for their inspiring oratory or their compelling turns of phrase; their unseemly texting or their uncouth quips are more likely to draw attention. In this digitally pulsing age, can public speech that is both beautiful and prophetic still serve as a political intervention? YouTube and other media keep alive Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he pledges—on the doorstep of his nation’s capital—his “faith [that] we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” Turning to the language of Christian prayer, and with echoes of scripture, song, and poetry, King calls on lawmakers to enact justice.
His political intervention was also a genre intervention, in which the call to prayer sought to tame the law, or better, to change it. In intervening decades, the turn to prayer as a political tool that could powerfully call for public justice has, not surprisingly, proven to be unstable. As always, when a form of art becomes newly recognized as a political tool, it is easily co-opted by enthusiasts across the political spectrum. Prayer as a call for justice is put into play not only by the dispossessed, but also by those whom we might call, with an inflection of capitalism, the possessed. Turning to a sense of universal justice through a reference to Christian scripture, prayer, or song has come to be seen as hopelessly partial, but this partiality was an important ground of King’s oratorical power.
But King spoke of his dream while outside of the halls of political power. His was not a form of what Sullivan calls “legislative prayer.” He performed his Christian-rooted petition for justice outside the bounds of state legitimated ritual. His genre intervention was not tamed by a careful scheduling of pluralist prayers.
Though law may tame public prayer, scrubbing its specificity or divine referents, there is still something in its performance that is worthy of consideration as a particular kind of political action. This is not quite the inward religious language of Latour that Ben Berger notes, and it is not quite the challenge of “unintelligibility” that comes with cautious reincorporation of Aboriginal prayer in Canadian public settings. In addition to these helpful perspectives, we might also think of prayer as a close kin of poetry; or of poetry as a seemingly secularized prayer.
The rise of the Poet Laureate in national capitols is one sign of the recognition that the public sphere requires genres alternative to what political speech has become (or perhaps always has been). Prayer, poetry, and song are modes of persuasion that do not depend solely on argument, policy, or statistics. They are genre interventions that not only turn to different sorts of authority than law to make their claims, but that do so with creativity, affect, and aesthetic pleasure as parts of their discipline.
The same city that has a mayor who ceaselessly refers to his fellow Torontonians as “taxpayers” and who has little in the way of oratorical gifts is also graced with an extraordinary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke. A poet who insists that both poetry and the poet have the task of political agitation at their heart, Clarke is an excellent example of how there may well be a blurry line between prayer and poetry. I believe that Clarke would contend that neither poetry nor prayer—or at least “scripture”—can be entirely tamed by law and that both are utterly necessary to political speech. This excerpt from one of his recent poems, “Principles of Good Governance,” makes the case in a much more persuasive way than anything I could craft.
1) Educate the electorate.
2) Illiteracy rots Democracy.
3) Equality? Fine schools, fine teachers, in every district.
4) The Citadel of Reason? The Library.
5) Quote Scripture; cite History; recite Poetry.
6) Do not plague the people by shouting opinions.
Do not demonize opponents.
Do not mislead or confuse.
7) Honesty is State Treasure.
8) A governor’s speech must be as clear as water.
9) Clarity is a branch of Charity.
10) To be decisive,
First be incisive.
11) Judgment must be as cool as steel, as sharp as steel.
12) To convince is better than to conquer.
13) Complaint is Revelation.
14) News perpetually startles,
Yet its truths are ancient:
To the Perceptive.
15) Do not pander; also, do not puff up superiors.
16) Flattery is bribery; it is slush.
17) Excuses enshrine Cowardice.
18) Remember: Great Thought leaps upward—
To try to discern Divinity.
1) Political success? A silver tongue and a heart of gold.
2) Elected? Serve the people.
3) Sobriety, Punctiliousness, Generosity, and Intelligence:
These qualities demand allegiance.