Friday, July 13, 2007

The Senate Is Not A Temple

[Posted by reader_iam]

Clearly, some people are confused on this point.

Perhaps these protestors fancied themselves as Jesus in the temple, scattering the money-changers desecrating a holy space. But the Senate chamber is not a temple. In fact, it is a great deal closer to a marketplace, which in turn is far closer to the ideal set forth by our Founding Fathers, in my estimation, their recognition of and even support for a role for religion in society notwithstanding.

I am highly skeptical of the notion that our founders meant "freedom from religion" (in other words, that the people were to be protected from unwanted or disliked references to or displays of religion, much less the mere presence of religious people) as opposed to freedom of religion , etc., as a sizable number of people appear to believe today. But I have not an ounce of skepticism that the founders were forbidding the establishment of an official federal religion and eschewing a government that would be presumptuous enough to micromanage an individual's conscience, practice of religion or soul (whether someone believes in that concept or not).

Here is the text of guest chaplain Rajan Zed's prayer:
Let us pray. We meditate on the transcendental Glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the Heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.

Lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us.

May the Senators strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world, performing their duties with the welfare of others always in mind, because by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. May they work carefully and wisely, guided by compassion and without thought for themselves.

United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be as one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord.

Peace, peace, peace be unto all. Lord, we ask You to comfort the family of former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Amen.
Here is the protestors' basis for objection:
The protesters' concerns, according to the website of a Mississippi group that was trying to mobilize opposition to Zed's appearance, were based on the fact that Hindus worship multiple Gods.
Yet the prayer above was in no way advocating that others worship multiple Gods. In fact, it made no reference to multiple Gods, instead using "Deity Supreme" and "Lord." Anyone in that chamber could choose to direct his or her internal joining in prayer to Jesus, Yahweh, God the Father Son & Holy Ghost, and so forth. Or not. Or he or she could substitute a prayer of his or her own and offer it silently to God. Or not. (Or contemplate the performance of the Washington Nationals, for that matter, or anything else that strikes a non-worshiper's fancy.) Demonstrations such as the one sponsored by Donald Wildmon's American Family Association do their "cause" no good: it is no more likely that that they will inspire conversions to Christianity than Rajan Zed's prayer likely inspired conversions to Hinduism. On the other hand, the protestors' display handed yet more ammunition into the hands of those who would like to paint, with broad brush, all Christians and all Christian denominations as fanatics conspiring to establish a Christian theocracy from sea to shining sea.

But all of this really avoids the issue. Simply put: It is time to stop opening sessions of Congress with official prayer representing any particular religion, and to discontinue paid government chaplaincies.** If individual legislators wish to pray before the opening of a session, who's stopping them? (For that matter, who's stopping them from "praying without ceasing" at any time, before, during or/and after?) If they want to do so in personally organized groups beforehand, have at it. I have no objection to that occurring even in public facilities, so long as attendance isn't compulsory and the type of prayer or religion isn't prescribed (or proscribed). To my way of thinking, public facilities no more exist for the exclusive use of the non-religious or the anti-religious than they do for the religious. And if senators or representatives want a more formalized, corporate experience overseen by official clergy, it seems to me that there is no dearth of churches in the D.C. area. Clergy have even been known to make "house" calls, if asked (and sometimes when not).

As for the chaplains, I understand that opening sessions of Congress with an invocation is "deeply embedded in tradition," and that this is the basis on which it passes constitutional muster. But traditions are not, in and of themselves, Holy, and they certainly aren't inherently universal, nor should they [have to] be eternally binding, at least in the public sense. By necessity, chaplains on the government payroll must strive for a certain universalism, a certain lack of edge and juice, a certain omitting and smoothing over, which renders the particulars of individual religions (such as Jesus, for example) squishy for their followers and relatively opaque, if not annoying in some cases and insulting in fewer, for those who are of other religions, agnostic, uninterested or atheist. So what's the point, beyond "tradition"?

***I would make an exception for military chaplains, or those in similar positions, who are serving people who can't exactly pop out to the church of their choice in the wider community. Context counts.

Clarification: I fully understand that Zed was a guest chaplain.

[Note: This post has been lightly edited to restore the inadvertently dropped end of a sentence, a skipped word and the letter "s" at the end of a word intended to be plural.]

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