Friday, December 02, 2005

Public Prayer Again

Once again, prayer in the name of Jesus is being prohibited in public addresses on secular occasions. This time it's in the Indiana House of Representatives.

For the facts (which hardly matter as they're always the same) here's the Indianapolis Star, here's the Baptist take (HT to Bunnie Diehl), and here's a secular Hoosier blogger (old post, newer post, newest post).

Why are we stuck on stupid?

This point of constitutional interpretation is settled, people -- prayer in the name of Jesus is considered sectarian and hence is disallowed on government-sponsored occasions. If a city hall or a state legislature still allows prayers in the name of Jesus, it's just because the ACLU hasn't had time to sue them yet. If a daring pastor "steps out in faith" to "challenge the powers and principalities" with a "Spirit-filled witness," as the Rev. Clarence Brown proudly did, then he'll just give the ACLU that much better a chance to squeeze a little more of Christianity out of the public square.

Live with that fact or else think of ways to change the constitutional interpretation. And that involves having thinking through the issues before hand.

Living with this interpretation, simply accepting that in a religiously plural society we can't open public meetings with prayer -- well that has the benefit of simplicity, and I can live with that, if I have to. But it is of course a further force of secularization, of the "separation of church and life" as Mark Shea puts it.

Now let's think: if prayer in the name of Jesus was banned, and all Christians believed prayer in the name of Jesus is an essential component of Christian prayer (as they should -- John 16:24), then this decision would essentially mean, only Christian clergy are prohibited from opening government sessions with prayer. Rabbis can, imams can, sadhus can, and lamas can, but pastors can't. This result is clearly discriminatory (not to mention ridiculous -- since the number of Indiana legislators who regularly use the spiritual services of clergy on the above list could probably be numbered on the fingers of one hand). So clearly there must be a problem built into the "non-sectarian" test.

So what's the problem?

The problem is in mis-identifying what is simply a context-marker of where the clergyman's prayer is coming from as somehow designating some kind of proselytization.

Let's compare two things: a Christian pastor praying in the name of Jesus and a Jewish rabbi praying with a yarmulka on. The pastor's verbal formula and the rabbi's yarmulka are both context-markers that the customs of their respective religions impose on the practice of prayer. A pastor ending a prayer in the name of Jesus is not "imposing" Christianity on the hearers any more than a rabbi wearing a yarmulke in a prayer or benediction is imposing Judaism on me. When a Jew hears a man praying in the name of Jesus, by that simple fact he knows this prayer is predicated on Jesus being the Son of God and to that extent it "excludes" him. But when I see a rabbi praying with a yarmulka, by that simple fact I know his prayer is predicated on the Trinity and the Incarnation being false. To that extent it "excludes" me. But of course, both are simply praying to the God prescribed by their traditions and beliefs.

Thus, the formal problem is that the "non-sectarian" test is ignorantly applied only to words (and only certain selected ones at that), not to gestures, clothing, etc. (The real reason is of course that many people in America fear Christianity in a way that no one fears Judaism, or Buddhism, or even Islam, so they want to find seemingly neutral rules that disadvantage only Christians, or only conservative Christians.)

In other words: if non-sectarian is interpreted to mean "you can't tell what religion the clergyman offering the benedicition/prayer belongs to" it is manifestly absurd and ridiculous, dictating a kind of prayer Esperanto that no one speaks in real life. But if it is interpreted to mean, "you can tell, of course, but the prayer is not being used for the purpose of calling or summoning members of other religions to the clergyman's religion" then concluding by "in the name of Jesus" is freed from the charge of being sectarian in the sense of marking the government's endorsement of one or another church or religion.

Now, the Rev. Clarence Brown did use the occasion for proselytization, leading the whole assembly into a chorus of "Just a Little Walk with Jesus." I think he misused the occasion, and would have no problem with the legislature itself or the courts prohibiting the use of benedictions/prayers before government tasks for such evagelistic activities as both a bad idea (certainly) and (perhaps) unconstitutional.* So throw the book at him. But simply praying in the name of Jesus cannot possibly be seen as harmfully sectarian, unless one wishes to see a constitutional interpretation that disadvantages only Christians as somehow neutral and fair.

UPDATE: The local paper (available on-line only by subscription) had an article this morning making basically the same point. IU law professors were quoted as saying this decision is simply applying a 1983 Supreme Court precedent which said that invocations on government time are government speech and thus must be nonsectarian and not be seen as endorsing any particular religion. "In the name of Jesus" is seen as making prayer sectarian (and hence endorsing Christianity), while apparently yarmulkes, saffron robes, turbans, Arabic or Hebrew sacred phrases, etc. do not make a prayer sectarian. [Commentary]: So we're back to the three possibilities:
1) accept that only confessional Christians cannot open government sessions with prayer;
2) prayer should not open any government sessions; or
3) the Supreme Court is confused about what "sectarian" could possibly mean, and needs to be helped to sort out its confusion.

1) is unacceptable,
2) I can live with, but
3) is certainly true in any case.

(The consitutionality of the fourth possibility, that clergy may in fact use prayer on public occasions to proselytize or engage in genuinely sectarian religious activity, I will leave someone else to debate, since if I were running the legislature, I wouldn't allow it in any case.)

*One can add that the whole idea of prayer as evangelism is unpardonably bad theology. Prayer is man talking to God. The only reason to pray is to communicate to God. Prayer should be done as if no one else is in the room, and as if if no one else but Him heard the prayer, its aim would still be achieved. The purpose of benediction at a government function is so that God will help, guide, and improve the workings of the government -- and it will do that according to His pleasure, regardless of whether the legislators or city council members can hear it at all.