Review of "One Nation Under God," from The Denver Post
By Douglas Groothuis Special to The Denver Post
One Nation Under God, by James P. Moore Jr., tackles a big subject in a unique way. It is not simply about prayer: how and when and why to pray or even to what being one should pray. It doesn't even offer advice beyond what can be sorted out from its many examples of prayer. Nor is it a standard history of America or some aspect of American experience.
Rather, Moore looks at the history of America in light of its prayers. He notes that despite "the role of prayer in American life, historians, even religious historians, have neglected this important part of the country's past, as well as the spirituality and even patriotism to which it is so often joined."
The author is a professor of business at Georgetown University. Nevertheless, he demonstrates deep knowledge of his subject by addressing America's hymns, anthems, art and literature related to prayer.
"If prayer represents the most private, innermost thoughts of an individual or of a people, then it must convey something rather special about us as Americans and the times in which we have lived," he writes in the prologue. Each chapter takes a period in American history and considers the role of prayer during that time, ending with "The Innocents: September 11, 2001, and Beyond."
Moore does not limit his investigations to the prayers of the clergy but considers a variety of people from many walks of life, including American Indians before the arrival of the Europeans, Benjamin Franklin, Elvis Presley, Frank Lloyd Wright, J.C. Penney, Cesar Chavez, Jackie Robinson and many others.
But he does not neglect the prayers of theologians such as Jonathan Edwards or evangelists such as Billy Graham.
Moore does not address "the efficacy of prayer" (a topic of many books and studies) nor does he propose a detailed theology of prayer. Instead, he chronicles the prevalence of prayer in American life without offering much commentary or correction, except to reprimand the secularists who discount it.
Moore seems to believe prayer is more than a person's psychological need for cosmic significance. He never debunks prayer or tries to explain it away.
It is true that theistic religions emphasize prayer as communication with a personal being. However, there are many forms of non-theistic religion - many of which make up a significant minority in American history. Buddhism is one such religion. The Dali Lama, a spiritual exemplar for many, says that Buddhism has no need for a creator and so does not encourage prayer but rather meditation.
The fact that theistic religions have similar practices of prayer does not clearly support the notion that prayer is their unifying factor and their truest meaning. Christians pray in Jesus' name, considering him the divine mediator between God the Father and sinful humans. Muslims pray directly to Allah according to the teachings of Muhammad, and find no need for a mediator. Jews pray to neither Allah nor Jesus, but to the God of the Covenant.
These are not minor differences that can be erased by noting their common practice of addressing a deity. One might consider the possibility of praying wrongly, just as one might vote wrongly or invest wrongly.
Prayer is not simply a personal and private practice by some or most Americans. On the contrary, our sense of prayer and the worldview behind our prayers have decisively shaped the nature of American history and will continue to do so. As such, this is a fruitful area for study and reflection.
Douglas Groothuis is a professor of philosopy at Denver Seminary and the author of On Jesus.