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Prayerful pandering on the public dime

11/18/2013

The Supreme Court is reviewing the appeal by Greece, New York, which is contesting a decision by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. That court correctly decided that Greece's Town Board prayer policy is a de facto violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment.

The Founders themselves prayed over the Articles of Confederation, which were a dismal failure. They did not pray together at all during adoption of our secular Constitution.

There are many valid reasons why government officials should not be spending official government time imploring a deity -- any deity -- to help them carry out the job they were elected to perform.

Those opposing such practices are numerous and diverse -- people with different religious beliefs, or none. Twenty percent of the American population now describes their religious beliefs as "none." It's 30 percent among "Millennials."

These aren't all atheist/agnostics. Some believe in a sort of universal spirit, but would consider it silly to ask it to help them decide government policy. They are expected, nonetheless, to sit and twiddle while officials pray to deities who, we are constitutionally entitled to believe, don't exist.

Official prayers coerce and require citizens to participate in Christian worship if they wish to participate in their government. Prayer is clearly a form of worship.

Proponents of such official prayer policies are overwhelmingly Christians, and those delivering such prayers are too. Many of them regard the Bible as either inerrant, or at least basically true.

So for them, the best reason to avoid these public displays of piety is - Jesus himself opposed them. If you keep a Bible by your recliner like I do, check out Matthew 6:

"Beware of practicing your piety before men to be noticed by them... And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men... But you, when you pray, go into your inner room and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you... And when you are praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that God will hear them for their many words."

Some claim that official prayers don't violate the Constitution so long as anyone who wants to chime in is allowed to do so. But in the real world, anything other than an unabashedly Christian prayer is rare in such settings.

In May, an Arizona state legislator was denounced after he opened a session of the Arizona House with an uplifting secular invocation. The following day a colleague insisted the House "repent for yesterday."

Most address these supplications to God-with-a-capital-G (and often close with "in Jesus' name"). To maintain that this is somehow a generic deity, every size fits all, is disingenuous at best.

The problem is that the state's implicit endorsement of any deity constitutes an affirmation of specifically religious principles -- principles to which many loyal, conscientious citizens do not subscribe, to wit:

A deity actually exists. It tunes in to every meeting. It is willing to grant prayerful requests, but might not act unless specifically requested to do so. Others would add that discontinuing such discriminatory practices might actually offend such a being -- a petty being, to be sure -- who might exact some sort of retribution as a result, or at least withhold general "blessings" in the future.

So those who pretend these official prayers are not first and foremost a Christian exercise would have us believe that the prayers are broadcast the way an imperiled ship at sea sends an SOS, hoping that someone -- anyone -- might happen to be in the vicinity and listening to the radio.

To many thoughtful people, this is akin to sustaining a belief in supernatural witches, but not any specific supernatural witches.

Wiccan witches, Yaqui witches, witches of the East or West -- it doesn't matter. There aren't any witches. A reasonable person could resent officials' begging for witchy assistance on government time.

And from a practical standpoint, what is gained by such prayers? Where's the evidence that opening or closing with prayers enhances the outcomes of a meeting? God won't help us make the right decisions about zoning regulations and potholes unless we publicly call on his assistance first?

If the officials pray for God to "bless" their meeting (recall Jesus' term "empty phrase" in Matthew?), and what they want him to do is truly good, a good god would do it without being asked. If it's not good, he will "say no" anyway.

If anyone really thinks that prayer is in fact essential to the outcome of these meetings, let him pray for success on his own time, as often and as long as he finds reassuring. Why does it have to consume some of everyone's time?

Unless ... unless this keeps non- and mis-believers in their place, reminding them of the second-class-citizen status of anyone who doesn't subscribe to the majority's religious biases.

Should Jesus' unambiguous words be deemed irrelevant or counterproductive in this particular instance? Are public displays of piety legitimate ways for priests, pastors and politicians to pander?

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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