Americans, at least those paying attention, have reacted in diverse ways to the spectacle which unfolded last week in the United States House of Representatives. Some have shown rage. Others have expressed confusion. Some have found it pure comic relief. Representatives on the Democratic side even brought popcorn to the chamber in mockery of the discord on public display among Republicans.
It takes no special wisdom to perceive the problems this opening chaos portends for the rest of the Session. A Congress with differing partisan majorities between chambers already sets a low bar for significant legislative accomplishments. The narrowness of the majorities in each chamber only drives the chances for meaningful work lower. Add in that one of these narrow majorities is deeply dysfunctional, one that takes fifteen ballots to choose a Speaker and, well, you get the point.
As Christians, our reaction to this situation must include prayer. Scripture commands that we pray for those in authority, including political office (I Timothy 2:1-4). It gives examples of such prayers as well (Psalm 20-21). In this moment, we should consider how we should pray in particular for our country’s legislative branch. We should seek Divine aid in restoring it to a functioning governing institution.
We find an example of such a petition in the American Prayer Books of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The American Prayer Book tradition has included a prayer for Congress since the 1789 BCP — the same year that the First Congress convened. This prayer continued to be included, with very minor alterations, in the 1892 and 1928 Prayer Books. The rubric in each states that the prayer is “To be used during their [Congress’s] Session” by the church, especially during its Morning and Evening Prayer services. In the broader Anglican tradition, one often hears the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, meaning “the law of prayer [is] the law of belief.” We learn what we believe and express that belief in part through prayer. So it is with the prayer for Congress. It expresses and thereby teaches the relationship between God and political institutions, the means Congress needs to accomplish its Divinely-established role, as well as the purposes for which it, and government in general, was ordained.
First, we must consider to Whom the prayer is directed. Of course the prayer speaks to God. In doing so on behalf of Congress, the prayer assumes God as the ultimate ruler, the ultimate source of all authority, including political (Romans 13:1-7). Yet the prayer begins, as do many prayers, by including in its address a divine attribute, calling to our “Most gracious God.” Doing so not only says something about God but also about ourselves. As God is gracious, so we stand in need of His undeserved favor. In particular, Congress needs God. God does not need Congress. This address establishes from the start a posture of humility — a trait sorely lacking in most, but especially our own, political time. That posture of humility also points out that our politics, especially as they relate to God, involve a grounding beyond justice, one of meritless provision. It also assumes God’s providential action in the world, including in the affairs of nations as political communities. We address a gracious God because we believe Congress not only needs His action but can receive such action.
Second, this prayer clarifies for Whom we pray. The prayer starts with an appeal to God on behalf of “the peoples” (1789) or “the people” (1892 and 1928) “of these United States in general.” This preface makes an important political point. Our government, at least as designed, is a popular one with human (as contrasted with Divine) rule grounded in the people. That is why the Constitution opens “We, the People.” Congress does not exercise inherent power. Instead, citizens elect Congress to represent them, to exercise their political power in the act of lawmaking. For this reason, when the prayer focuses on Congress, it calls its chambers “their Senate and Representatives,” meaning the people’s. Thus, in praying for Congress, we pray for our country as well. In praying for Congress, we must not lose sight of the broader context of the political community for which it acts and for whose good it is in part tasked with legislating.
Third, the prayer lists what means we should ask God to provide for the legislative branch. Here, we must recall the essential Constitutional role delineated for Congress: to make law. What do those chambers need to do this, their assigned task, well? The prayer answers by asking God “to direct and prosper all their consultations.” In so doing, this prayer recognizes an essential quality of any legislative body: deliberation. One may only truly deliberate when in serious discussion with another. For that reason, our Congress is composed of many members, not one. Those members come from different parts of the country, are elected for different terms (between House and Senate), accrue different areas of expertise, and represent different constituencies. They do so not merely to fully reflect popular will but to enhance the quality of their deliberations. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 17:17). They bring their different talents and perspectives to bear in producing and refining bills to (hopefully) craft superior laws.
Congress today sorely lacks this deliberative element. Members talk past each other and to constituents back home or special interests in the Beltway. They do not refine each other but instead often take turns grandstanding, making the legislative process more of a performance. C-SPAN and the internet (especially social media platforms) have opened up Congress’s workings to the public. But they also have changed the direct audience of members’ speeches from each other to the broader public or selected groups. Doing so has deeply hurt the institution’s ability to do its fundamental Constitutional task of making law. It has distracted from real deliberation, thus resulting in fewer laws, laws poorly written, and laws that often delegate most decision-making to bureaucrats.
Thus, what we ask God to do in relation to these consultations is especially imperative. We ask that God would both “direct and prosper” their deliberations. This point recognizes God’s sovereignty. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Congress needs the direction of God and the providential prospering of the consequent legislative actions that body takes. In so, praying, we again affirm that God has not left our world, including our politics, to chance. He can and does move the minds and hearts of legislators and guides the effects of their lawmaking in relation to the American people and the world. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). The petition also acknowledges the difficulty inherent in good lawmaking. It requires art as well as moral virtue. Without God’s gracious intervention, no legislative body can hope to achieve even a pale reflection of our Creator’s ultimate and perfect lawmaking.
Fourth, the prayer directs for what ends we pray for Congress. This point flows naturally from the previous one. If we ask God to direct and prosper Congressional consultations, then in what direction do we mean and what does prosperity look like? Here, the prayer weaves together a number of directions and descriptors of prosperity. We desire first (and foremost) “the advancement of thy [God’s] glory.” This petition clarifies the earlier connection between praying for Congress and praying for the American people. Congress does exist to serve the good of the polity. So doing fulfills the Law’s command to love thy neighbor in the legislative context. However, the Law also requires us to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37). The prayer assumes this duty also applies to Congress. In fulfilling their Constitutional role, they must take account of and seek for God’s glory as an act of love to Him.
The prayer then asks that Congressional consultations result in “the good of thy Church.” In America, we tend to speak more of how the church should stay out of political affairs and politicians away from theological matters. An element of that perspective certainly is for the Church’s good. Article 37 of the 1571 Articles of Religion forbids political rulers from preaching or administering the sacraments, for example. But this petition also implies a positive role of provision and protection, a role described in passages like Isaiah 49 and 60, wherein rulers are referred to a “foster fathers,” “nursing mothers” (Isaiah 49:23) and of the church it is said that “You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings” (Isaiah 60:16). Church and state may have distinctions in their particular roles. But they operate on the same persons, working toward the fulfilling common, ultimate goals of glorifying God and ensuring the spread of the Gospel (either by direct proclamation or supportive provision).
Finally on this part, we pray for “the safety, honour, and welfare of thy people.” God’s care and provision for His people includes their protection, their honoring, and in general their welfare as pursued by legislative means. In this articulation we see an echo of Romans 13, where Paul says that government’s God-ordained role includes honoring good and punishing evil, both undertaken as means of protection and welfare for all. What follows in the prayer is what seems to be an elaboration of these terms. It then asks God for the establishment, “upon the best and surest foundations” of three pairs of ends. In each case, the first point enables the second even as both fulfill the purposes of protection, honor, and welfare.
The prayer first pairs peace and happiness. Peace links in particular with protection. Peace in the public sense involves the absence of violence, either external threats of invasion or internal issues of crime. Happiness connects especially with welfare, as our common good is an important condition of our collective and individual felicity. But the goal of happiness also builds on peace. With peace established, a deeper, fuller, more flourishing good may be pursued and thus some semblance of earthly happiness achieved.
The next pair consists of truth and justice. Truth relates especially to honor. As we know the truth, so we can praise good conduct, not bad (Romans 13:3). Laws thereby cultivate virtue and dissuade from vice. It also forms a foundation for justice. To do what is right we must know what is right. And through the truthful pursuit of justice, Congress not only protects, they not only honor, but they also seek the good (the welfare) of all.
The final pair conjoins “religion and piety.” These ends, given to Congress, again declare a public role for religion in our polity. Through religion, we know our duties to God and to our fellow man. We thereby know our obligations on both counts. In other words, religion forms a means for perceiving truth, for understanding justice, and thus for properly protecting, honoring, and seeking the welfare of those subject to Congressionally-composed statutes. We can see the combination of this pair and the previous one in Psalm 19, which gives two lenses — one creational and one scriptural — through which God makes known His character and His rule. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) and “the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:8b). Justice and piety are brothers and sisters in this articulation. We learn a fuller justice, a fuller concept of a just and gracious political community, when consulting both means of God’s revelation. Thus, as Congress must seek the good of God’s church, so it must cultivate within its own sphere religion and attendant piety.
The prayer ends where it began. It appeals to God’s grace, this time the particular person, work, and mediation of Jesus Christ. It does so in hope that God will hear and grant all of the preceding petitions for our country’s legislative body. In the aftermath of last week’s spectacle in the House, we should pray this prayer. As future conflicts and chaos undoubtedly arise, we should continue to appeal to God on Congress’s behalf. We also should learn from this prayer how to consider the means and ends ordained for our legislative branch. As hard as it may seem right now, God can glorify Himself, seek the good of His church, and the welfare of His people in the 118th Congress. He can direct and prosper legislative attempts to seek peace and happiness, pursue truth and justice, as well as inculcate religion and piety. So should we pray. So should we believe.