An American Airlines gate agent stirred controversy this week by offering a Christian prayer over the loudspeaker at a boarding gate at Washington National Airport. What should we make of this prayergate incident?
The Prayer…In Full.
In situations like this it is impossible to write objectively, beyond describing what happened. We all carry our biases into discussions over religion because we are all, deep-down, religious creatures (that itself is a biased truth claim…).
So let’s start with the prayer itself. Since even summarizing it may invoke biases, here is the prayer in full (at least the portion of it recorded):
“Teach us to trust You Father God. With the virus, with the economy, with all that is going on, teach us just to trust You, trust You with all our heart, lean not unto thine own understanding, acknowledge You in all our ways, that You would direct our paths. Father God, honestly, Father God, just bless us Father God.
“Bless us in all that we need. Father God, we need love, We need kindness, love they neighbor as thyself. Oh thank you Jesus. Just thank you for all you do for us Father God. Just open up our hearts. If there is anything in there that should not be, take it out Father God. Give us the fruit of the spirits, give us love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, gratefulness, gentleness, and self-control.
“Father God, I just thank you for everyone here. Bless your family Father God. We all stand underneath the suffering. Father, people died and were conquered because of the virus. Father God…”
The recording then cuts off so we do not know how the prayer concluded or what the general reaction of the passengers in the gate area was.
You can also watch the video below if you prefer.
Ummm excuse me, @AmericanAir? Care to explain why your agent at gate 38 at DC’s @Reagan_Airport (DCA) is reciting lengthy Christian prayers over the loudspeaker right now? So inappropriate, not okay. Insulting to ppl of other faiths/no faith at all. #shame #fail #ThursdayThoughts pic.twitter.com/kc1UpcTbhI
— (((John M. Becker))) (@freedom2marry) June 25, 2020
A Beautiful, Unoffensive, But Inappropriate Prayer
The prayer was not offensive. In fact, I found it beautiful. With the exception of one mention of Jesus, it was also a broadly religious prayer rather than a Christian prayer, even though the fruit of the Spirit comes from the New Testament.
I see no evidence to suggest anything but good intentions from the gate agent who recited this prayer. I see humility, gentleness, and love in his decision to pray (though I understand why others see it differently). This is indeed a difficult time in the United States and I concur in his belief that prayer is absolutely essential to help us throughout this time. I’ll go even further. I believe Jesus is the cosmic Christ, i.e. the savior of all mankind. In Him and through Him is found our salvation. The answer to racism, injustice, and division is to embrace Jesus who will bridge heaven and earth in a new creation in which justice will reign.
But Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
We don’t need to dive into a deep hermeneutical discussion of this text. Certainly, Jesus was scolding those who deliberately performed righteous acts before men rather than condemning someone for expressing his faith in a genuine manner.
But the principle of civic religion and all its trappings does make me feel uneasy. One reason religion has flourished in the United States is because of the healthy separation between church and state. When religious expression becomes a mouthpiece (literally in this case) to which others are subjected, hostility and resentment grows and religious expression and eventually religious liberty suffers. This is true whether the speaker is the government (especially) but also corporations to captive crowds in public places.
For that reason, and as a business owner myself, I would not have engaged in that prayer in that place. For my platform is simply not the proper platform for this. Ask me about religion and I am happy to share my heart. But I’m not going to force people to hear me pray, even if I think it is beneficial to them. Foremost, because prayer is about talking to God, not talking to others.
The last thing I want to hear at an airport is a political diatribe or religious proselytization from a religion or sect of Christianity that I do not agree with. Putting myself in the shoes of others, I do not think loudspeakers in airport terminals are the appropriate mediums for public prayer.
Therefore, I wish I could give a big hug to the gate agent today and rejoice in his strong faith. But I also think such prayer is not appropriate in the place and manner it was delivered. It’s not about offensiveness or legality, it is about recognition that the strong emotions and outrage many have expressed over this act are counterproductive to American Airlines’ primary mission to transport passengers safely.
Don’t Make The Link To Middle East Airlines
Many have made links to Middle East carriers, noting that carriers like Etihad, Qatar, and Saudia begin flights with prayers for each passengers.
That is comparing apple and oranges. State-run airlines in Islamic theocracies are quite different than American Airlines, a private corporation in a nation with religious plurality and no national church.
Thus, any comparisons to Gulf carriers are wholly inappropriate.
Others have asked what would have happened if an Islamic prayer had been offered instead by the gate agent. Would people have been offended?
No doubt. And probably many of the people offended by the Christian prayer would not be offended by that prayer and vice-versa. Personally, I would not be offended. Prayer, when offered with good intention, is a deeply moving human gesture, no matter its efficacy. I would still think it not appropriate.
I was moved by the gate agent’s prayer. It was beautiful and fitting to the time. But I also do not think it was appropriate. American Airlines has an unwanted diversion now to its survival mission, fueled by intolerant comments like this:
It’s like religious terrorism.
— Michelle (mitsumeeshi) (@muppetgirl74) June 26, 2020
The United States is not a theocracy and no longer a nation with broad religious consensus. God hears our prayer no matter where it is uttered. Therefore, I’ll save my prayer for venues in which unwilling participants are not captive to my words.