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Henningsen: Politics And Prayer

(Host) During the recent congressional arm-twisting over the impending fiscal cliff, some politicians resorted to prayer. It was a development that got commentator Vic Henningsen thinking that success might actually depend on the prayer.

(Henningsen) Last December 20th, Speaker of the House John Boehner began a meeting of Republican Congressmen by leading them in what's widely known as the Serenity Prayer.

Hethen announced that the House would adjourn because he could not muster the votes to support his Plan B approach to resolving the fiscal cliff crisis.

Boehner's use of the prayer was significant. Usually attributed to mid-twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr,the Serenity Prayer has become a fixture in American culture. We've all heard it: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference. It's a regular feature of 12-step programs, with its fundamental assertion that acceptance is a precursor to change.

Or,as Boehner might have been thinking, a reason not to change. His inability to secure votes from his own party to approve a measure that would continue tax cuts for all but the very highest earners meant that any bipartisan agreement resolving the fiscal cliff appeared at the time to be impossible. He'd attempted to change things, failed, and - as the prayer dictates - was preparing to serenely accept the outcome.

Personally,I think that's a misreading of the prayer, which emphasizes wisdom in knowing and courage in doing - more than it does in serenely accepting.

Butthere's another prayer, that I think might have been better suited for the occasion. It's a prayer not for serenity, but for success. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, part of it may be seen on his memorial in St.Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, carved by American sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. A copy of the memorial, with the prayer inscribed, is on exhibit at the St. Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Here's Stevenson:

Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge.
Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere.
Offenders, give us the grace to accept and to forgive offenders.
Forgetful ourselves, help us to bear cheerfully the forgetfulness of others.
Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind.
Spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies.
Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors.
Ifit may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and, down to the gates of death, loyal and loving one to another.

This is a call to action, not an excuse for retreat. It acknowledges friction and conflict as inevitable parts of the human condition, but suggests that we can rise above our differences if we're willing to work at it. Note the qualities Stevenson emphasizes when things go against us: bravery, constancy, temperateness, loyalty, and love. Serenity, he suggests, comes from active engagement, not passive acceptance.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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