Wednesday, May 7, 2014

They burned witches once

     Let's linger over over the Supreme Court giving the nod to government-sanctioned prayer. Because while I dealt with it in yesterday's column, there are more aspects to consider.
     Why government? Why aren't prayers said before commercial events? Why don't we pray before the movie is screened, before a concert begins? Those are public venues, like meetings. Why doesn't a restaurant pause for public prayer? Everybody is about to eat—that's a traditional time for prayer. 
     Easy. Because those are commercial undertakings, and businesses don't want to alienate customers. Officially-sanctioned prayer is another government inefficiency and abuse of power. Companies know that it's unnecessary—people are already free to pray wherever and whenever they like. It's the show prayers that are the trouble. A high school game can have a prayer beforehand because they're in some jerkwater Texas town and most everybody is the same faith anyway. But the NFL isn't going to have all the fans bow their heads because it would be ludicrous and turn some paying customers off, by using prayer to stake out territory, to include some and exclude the rest.
     What does business know that government doesn't? Why can government exclude its own citizens, some of them, in this small but real fashion? Because the gesture is so insignificant? Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that prayer before public meetings is "ceremonial" —a trivializing comment that sucks the meaning out of prayer and would offend religious sorts, if they were thinking critically, which of course they're not.  
    Plus he's right, to a degree, in the sense that the various officials and residents waiting to complain about stuff aren't earnestly beseeching God to make the Boofaulk County Zoning Commission monthly meeting go smoothly. It's just introductory throat-clearing that they've done forever and few even think about beyond not wanting to stop.  You're not supposed to think about it, but eventually outsiders, Jews and atheists and other rabble, did think about it, and said, "Wait a minute! We thought this was the United States of America. Why do we have to listen to you pray to your God before we talk to the school board about the issue with the high school parking lot?" Thus the lawsuits, and this ruling, kicking us back toward the imaged Eden of the 1950s when white Protestants ruled supreme and the underclass, the foreigners and the colored and the Catholics, knew to keep their mouths shut.
     The ceremony is one of dominance. The prayer is like a dog peeing its territory, a quick marking of the spot: ours. Plus a display of the instruments of torture. We could be passing laws against you. We could be burning you. But instead, generous us, we're having a little prayer—you should be grateful. We'll even let you say your prayers, sometimes, a practice that, should it ever actually become prevalent, will kill off prayer at government meetings, one reason I'm not too worked up about this latest step backward. Various faiths and sects and cults and sub-beliefs lining up to say their prayers will instill within WASPs the value of secular government the same way that Affirmative Action made them embrace race-blind merit admissions. What worked when it was skewed to them won't be so pretty when other people try it. 
    Before parting, a word on the reaction to yesterday's column, which was considerable.
     Now the people who would want prayer before government functions, who do you suppose those people would be? The pious? The devout? The godly? No, not at least judging from the many who wrote in:
     "Just got done reading your article on prayer, and, I just wanted to email, the GOOD people finally won one," writes Dan B.  "LIVE WITH IT."
    "I’m sorry Christianity and praying to God to be thankful for what we have has ruined your day," writes Paul L. "You need to grow a little thicker skin."
     You get the idea. I particularly savored the first one, because I think it reflects the mindset behind the practice. "The GOOD people finally won one," "finally," as opposed to defeat after defeat—women dressing like whores, blacks not minding their place, gays forgetting they are going to hell—that they've been suffering. A rare bit of luck for Christianity, score one finally for the team, which has been on the ropes since Calvary. 
    It sounds preposterous, but that's how they think. Bullies are inevitably aggrieved, inevitably have a litany of wrongs and slights that rationalize their pushing other people around. They are the victims who are finally, thank God, finally getting justice.
     The truth is religion has had the whip hand, and it has gotten a pass, up to now, when the lightest restraints are placed gently upon it, and religion doesn't like it. Like any wild beast it wants to be free. Religion is at best a tool, a neutral tool. It can be used for good, and sometimes even is. No question about that. And it can be used for evil, great evil, and has been, continually. It is the rationale to oppress and murder and trivialize. Allowing prayer before government meetings is not itself intolerable. Rather, it is the last gasp of the intolerable.
    Or let's hope it's the last gasp, and not the first birth cry of it all coming back. Society swings through great cycles. They burned witches, once. They'll burn them again if we're not careful. If caring about this seems a big deal—and it does, to it's-our-country-ain't-it? Christians who just can't see what the fuss is about—then better to make a big deal out of it now, when state religion is in the cradle, then wait for it to grow up. Many countries are already there. Government-backed faith is ugly and un-American, and the Supreme Court just took a step in that direction.  Let's not follow them willingly. 



  1. Why is Thanksgiving a forced holiday? Who am I suppose to "thankful" to? It should be "Fall Break Day."

    Americans don't have a lot of shared rituals, but I guess if prayer is state-sponsored then get rid of it, or allow everyone to preach at meetings. In any event, the prayer could be moved to the end of small town meetings, when most citizenry and possible press member have left by 9 leave the elect conduct its business openly in private glory.

    Here's a lightening bolt: all ballots with elected offices should follow Nevada's lead and make "None of the Above" a required choice for voters, a la Richard Pryor's "Brewster's Millions" movie.

    2014 Supreme Court ruling approves the possibility of no elected officeholders:

    Now excuse me while I soak up the sun for the next few months and turn off the media. Summer is fleeting.

    -- Art Gold

  2. "They'll burn them again if we're not careful." THIS is true. It is also denied, ignored, and ridiculed a million different ways by the people who are supposed to think deeply or govern wisely.

    For the first shaky decades of our republic, the words on everyone's lips were: "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." They weren't talking about terrorists and immigrants. In those early days, the specter of returning to un-American practices seemed much more real and present.

    Now read this historical and etymological awesomeness:

  3. Will B - Your link was very interesting, thank you. I think the Tea Partiers have appropriated that phrase, sadly - 2nd Amendment ya know - and will miss the irony as they're praying before their town meeting.

  4. While it is not a prayer, why do they play the national anthem before every sporting event. When i was in the army back in the 70's they played it before movies at the base theaters. They stopped at least at our base when every one waited until it was over before entering.

  5. I also thought it was uncannily odd to have pray because we tend to leave some faith out or the one that have the right to not have a faith. Is it not immoral to segregate people. Is it not une yt? Ethical to put people in a box because they different views. I thought what make America different is we are place of the free and opportunity. Our founding fathers and mothers are asleep now. Do we not keep some traditions and add to their frame work as we have moved hundreds of years to their future and the world of America looks different. GOD? Bless America Land of the free - Is that True ?

  6. @Sanford. They still play it at the Lyric at the beginning of the opera season—not sure why, I'm sure some patriotic remnant. I find it sweet.

  7. NASCAR always has a prayer before the start of a race. Which reinforces your point about dominance.

  8. Jews are excused because it's not their part of the good book, but Christians who support this ruling should read Matthew 6:5 and be embarassed

  9. I like the prayer at the end of the meeting idea. If prayer is what prayer claims to be, why is time a barrier? Retroactive, like when Rotarians say grace after the meal's over.

  10. Oklahoma Thunder games have a prayer before play starts.

  11. It's all very ironic when you consider what Paul and Peter wrote in the NT about dealing with outsiders. Paul said that we should not do anything which keeps people from coming to know God. Required sectarian prayers before meetings of government certainly sounds like a "stumbling block" to me given how many people are offended by it. Paul also said that he became like the people he was dealing with so that it would be easier for them to accept the message of the gospel. And so, it's hard to see him insisting on public prayers that would make him stand out like a sore thumb in an increasingly secular culture. Lastly, Peter said we should treat outsiders to the faith with gentleness and respect. Doing a slap down on skeptics using public prayers to put them in their place doesn't sound very respectful to me. When I tried to make these points in a more conservative forum, I was accused of trying to limit their religious freedom. Many believers have a decided inability to see things from the perspective of those who do not share their faith and that was clearly on display in the reactions to this ruling.

  12. Can we also get rid of singing God Bless America at sporting events? Do we really need the double dose of forced religion and faux patriotism?


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