Friday, May 9, 2014

Praying in Public

Norman Rockwell. Do Unto Others (click for credits)
By now people who follow such things have heard the outcome of the Greece v. Galloway case. The town of Greece, New York can continue opening its board meetings with prayers, even though most of those prayers over the years have been explicitly Christian--something many of the citizens of Greece are not. The handful of people who read this blog can guess what my humble little opinion will be--it was a bad decision. This is a religiously diverse country. Millions of Americans are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or Sikhs, while millions more are non-religious. City board meetings are representative assemblies of citizens, so it seems to me that their official proceedings should be, you know, representative.

There's just no way to have an official prayer that represents all creeds. You could rotate them, I suppose, having citizens of all the faiths in a town open meetings with prayers in their own faith. But that leaves out non-religious people, and it's sure to cause controversy. Imagine what's going to happen if a local Muslim doctor in a small town in West Virginia asks to open a council meeting with a prayer invoking Muhammad as God's prophet. It's not going to go over well. Better, I think, to just leave the prayers outside of government functions. People should be able to pray as often and as loudly as they want--just not as a part of an official government proceeding. By all means, pray all day long if you want to, just don't ask people who don't share your beliefs to stand up and pray with you.

Still, I realize there are bigger issues in the world than this one. Barrel bombs are dropping on children in Syria. Governments are killing people with drones. This is not an issue that will (likely) cause people to lose their lives, their livelihoods, or their freedom. In terms of church/state issues in particular, I can't get as worked up about this as I can about enforced school prayer, creationism in public schools, or religiously-based discrimination against gays (which does dramatically impact people's lives). Also, I know the stereotype a lot of people have about those who object to official prayers--they're seen as whiny liberals who want to impose their weird minority believes on the Christian minority. "Butthurt" is the lovely term I keep hearing. Obviously, I don't agree with that stereotype, but part of me thinks it would be better to save our objections for the bigger church/state issues. Is fighting against official Christian prayers, especially in places where the majority of people will be against you, worth the ill will it generates? Tough question. I know I prefer persuasion, whenever it's an option. Hence this post.

Anyway, even though I'm not religious, but I've stood and bowed my head for many Christian prayers at government functions. Not long ago, Senator David Vitter organized a town hall meeting where I live in Louisiana. At the beginning, he said something like, "First let's all get in the right frame of mind by having a prayer." Then we all bowed our heads, as a member of the local parish council (who seems like a very nice person) said a prayer that ended with, "in Jesus' name we pray." I looked around afterward and wondered how many other non-Christians were in that room. Probably not many, honestly. Out of 250 or so people in south Louisiana--mostly very pro-Vitter--I wouldn't think there were more than a handful of non-Christians. But I also bet I wasn't the only one. I know there are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist Americans in town, even I didn't recognize them in the meeting. Could it be that they didn't quite feel welcome?

As for me, I can handle going along with a public prayer, though I don't particularly like the assumption that I agree with it. It's not like I think I'm "cheating on" my own religion--I don't have one. Besides, if I had objected to that prayer, in that atmosphere, I might have left on a stretcher. But what about people of other religions? Imagine being a Jew in that meeting (and we do have Jewish citizens here). How would you feel if you were asked to stand and participate in a prayer that ended with "in Jesus name we pray?" You would think, "But we don't pray in Jesus' name. If we did we would be Christians, not Jews." Or if it's hard to imagine being non-Christian, let's say the shoe were on the other foot, and you were a Christian in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Would you be OK with standing and participating in a Jewish prayer? How about a Hindu or Muslim prayer?

In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you." Do you want to be asked to pray in a religion besides your own? Is that what you would want others to do unto you? Just before that verse, in Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." What would Jesus have thought of official prayers in a pluralistic nation? I don't know, and I know we church/state advocates love to quote Matthew 6:5-6, whether we're Christians or not. But it's a question worth considering. Besides, he did say it.

As Justice Elena Kagan pointed out, asking people to participate in other people's prayers at goverment meetings puts them in an awkward position. Very often, they've come to ask for something. For example, I live on a street full of children, but people are always driving through here like they're practicing for NASCAR. I truly worry that someone is going to get run over. What if I went to a council meeting and asked that speed bumps be installed? Would it be a good idea to remain seated, head up and eyes open, during the prayer, before I asked for those speed bumps? It's easy to imagine being voted down just because a couple of council members peaked at me during the prayer, and didn't like what they saw. It's even easier to imagine if you were obviously "different"--if I looked Middle Eastern, for example, or spoke with a non-English accent. Of course, most people wouldn't let that affect their vote, but we all know some would. So, people who feel they're violating their own faith by participating in a prayer have a tough choice--go with your conscience and abstain...and risk retaliation? Or sit quietly, feeling like a traitor to your faith? Not an easy choice to make. And not one that any American citizen should be asked to make.