- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

ONE NATION UNDER GOD: THE HISTORY OF PRAYER IN AMERICA

By James P. Moore, Jr.

Doubleday, $29.95, 519 pages.

PRAYER: A HISTORY

By Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

Houghton Mifflin, $29.95,

415 pages.

REVIEWED BY LARRY WITHAM

Most people can think of a painting that shows people at prayer, from a Norman Rockwell classic to the image of a Catholic saint or the Pilgrim fathers. It is harder to grasp, however, the idea that every human thought and action can be a prayer in itself.

Yet that is one thing we learn in two new books on the history of prayer. Prayer is, of course, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” But it also can be poetry, verse, song and modern art. It flows in musings about God’s goodness, and it erupts amid riveting fear about loss and death.

These two books cover the territory. “One Nation Under God,” written by Georgetown University professor James P. Moore. Jr, begins with American Indians and New World explorers and ends with President George W. Bush’s second inauguration. This seamless narrative flows like a short American history book, linking prayers, poems, songs, hymns and church affiliations to about every American celebrity we know, including each of the 42 men who have been president.

Mr. Moore argues that while nearly every step of American history had the “palpable presence of prayer,” in recent decades it “too often has become a subject best publicly avoided.” He hopes the book will remedy that. Another excellent work, “Prayer: A History,” is written by two scholars of religion who are a husband-wife team, Philip and Carol Zaleski. They begin with anthropology. They look at how religion and prayer began and why it goes along with ritual. Prayer-as-magic, they explain, became prayer as selfless giving, or sacrifice.

The Zaleskis’ book flows by themes, not chronology. It looks at four ways people pray (refugee, devotee, ecstatic and contemplative). They explore prayer in culture and they look at its empirical claims of healing and efficacy. This book ranges the world over, looking at many faiths and different times in history. Both books give a helpful definition of prayer. Mr. Moore defines it as “the elevated communication of human beings with their God.” Mr. and Mrs. Zaleski describe prayer as “action that communicates between human and divine realms.”

Each book has its particular strengths, while the weaknesses may be suggested by comparing the two. Mr. Moore has done a remarkable job of researching (for seven years) the personal stories of so many American public figures. We are treated to a prayer of Lenape warriors, Puritan verse, an Emily Dickinson poem, an Elvis gospel tune and the glee of Gen. George S. Patton when prayers ostensibly helped annihilate the enemy. Each story is like a capsule, but Mr. Moore has kept the chronological narrative going remarkably well. We leap from battles to revolutions and then to ebullient periods of American arts and literature. Every president is touched on.

Mr. Moore avoids what he calls the “traps” of myth making about American piety. There is no mention that Washington purportedly knelt in prayer at Valley Forge, and he explains that when Benjamin Franklin urged delegates to pray at the drafting of the Constitution, they rejected the idea. With a bit of irony, he notes that in 1898 President William McKinley said God told him in prayer to invade the Philippines. But this is a patriotic book. The evidence of prayer, Mr. Moore says, “must convey something rather special” about America. As America becomes more religiously diverse, prayer continues to be a “common denominator” among all peoples.

In “Prayer: a History,” Mr. and Mrs. Zaleski have taken a comparative religion approach. It is strong in its full portraits of individuals, events or scholarly debates on prayer. The authors lean toward first-person testimonials, and the level of detail can be fascinating.

In the chapter on the prayer of a “refugee” — anyone seeking God’s help — the authors tell us the stories of a best-selling book, “The Prayer of Jabez,” the island-stranded Robinson Crusoe, the British man of letters Samuel Johnson and the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. All of them left behind vivid examples of “petitionary” prayer, prayer “out of the depths” of a human need or desperation. For ecstatic prayer, we get the stories of Indian mystic Ramakrishna, Catholic saint Teresa of Avila and modern-day Pentecostalism. Contemplative prayer finds its examples in modern art and photography, Zen gardens and Japanese haiku poetry.

These two fine books overlap in places, suggesting the hot spots of debate about prayer. They cover the 1960s Supreme Court rulings that banned organized prayer from schools, and they look at scientific experiments with intercessory prayer. They both cite famous art on prayer and excerpt from prayerful verse.

The two books also significantly diverge. One thinks of the proverbial disagreement between those who say “it’s more simple than you think” and those who say “it’s more complicated than you think.” Mr. Moore’s “sweeping commentary” suggests a simpler reading of prayer. The Zaleskis’ story of “myth and dream, revelation and tragedy” bespeaks complexity.

Mr. Moore’s story is one of America praying, winning, getting rich and praying some more. Prayer was a “coalescing tool” to win the American Revolution, for example. Mr. Moore concedes that prayer “has been abused throughout history” and he notes how “God was effectively being set up in an absurd way” during the prayers of the Civil War. But this is a positive book about American prayer. When Gen. Patton won a battle in 1944, he said, “Well, Padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would.”

Mr. and Mrs. Zaleski cite Gen. Patton as well, but to illustrate the irony of prayer in war: How two sides ask the same God for victory. Abraham Lincoln discussed this dark mystery, but left it a mystery nonetheless. In World War II, according to a survey cited by Mr. Moore, soldiers said prayer was more helpful to their survival than religion or patriotism.

Regarding the scientific studies of prayer, Mr. Moore is cautiously optimistic that they give proof that prayer gets results. Mr. and Mrs. Zaleski show that the scientific evidence is quite uncertain, depending on how it is interpreted. The scientists must assume that “God will play along with the experiment,” the Zaleskis note.

Controversy notwithstanding, these two books are a great uplift to any reader, whether they live in red states or blue states, or hold simple or complex outlooks.

The authors define and illustrate prayer in broad, helpful ways, yet with limits. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, said every human thought is a prayer, which may be stretching it. In their own ways, the two books celebrate the helpfulness, reasonableness and majoritarian nature of prayer. For those who pray, this reading may challenge them to a broader view. For the prayerless, they might give it a try. The American psychologist and philosopher William James, not one to pray himself, nevertheless said: “We cannot help praying.”

Larry Witham is a Maryland writer.

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