When government prays, no one wins

Sunday, May 15, 2005

It’s a ritual as old as the Republic, but nowadays public prayer may be less about religious faith and more about politics and discrimination.

Exhibit A is the ruling last month by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the “prayer policy” of the Board of Supervisors in Chesterfield County, Va. The conflict started when Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan, was denied an opportunity to give an invocation at a board meeting. She was told that only prayers “consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition” would be allowed.

A three-judge panel ruled that since the county only allows prayers that are non-sectarian and non-proselytizing, the policy is constitutional under past Supreme Court decisions. According to the appeals court, it doesn’t offend the First Amendment if disfavored religions are excluded from the “prayer list.”

In other words, the court thinks it’s OK for government officials to prefer some religions over others as long as the selected prayers are addressed to-whom-it-may-concern.

If this strikes you as a convoluted way for government to handle public prayer, try untangling the complicated mixture of church and state called the “National Day of Prayer” celebrated earlier this month.

Congress first mandated a day of prayer in 1952, amending the law in 1988 to set May 5 as the permanent national date. But most of the activities associated with the day are organized by a group called the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private organization run by evangelical Christians and chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of conservative Christian leader James Dobson.

The task force may be “private,” but that distinction is ignored at thousands of prayer-day events — including the one held at the White House — and lost in most news accounts. At the White House gathering, President Bush was careful to mention the “freedom to pray as you wish, or not at all” — but he opened the gathering by acknowledging Shirley Dobson as the chairman and organizer of National Prayer Day.

Visit the Web site for the National Day of Prayer Task Force and you’ll discover that involvement is limited to those who “share the Judeo-Christian heritage” and ascribe to the Lausanne Covenant, a 1974 plan for world Christian evangelism.

As a private group, of course, the task force is free to celebrate the day in any way it chooses. But when elected leaders from the president to the local mayor treat the task force as the “official” organizer of the National Day of Prayer, they send a message of government endorsement of a particular faith — and a corresponding message of exclusion to millions of Americans.

All of this raises a basic question: What’s the government doing in the prayer business in the first place?

As the Chesterfield County case reveals, when government prays, no one wins. People of the favored faiths get pabulum that has little to do with authentic prayer. People of other faiths are discriminated against. And people of no religious affiliation (some 30 million Americans) get left out entirely.

Proclaiming a National Day of Prayer is even more troubling. Calling people to worship is the job of religion, not government. What may have started as well-meaning civil religion intended to unify the nation is beginning to look like a religious revival that entangles church and state.

Prayer is politically popular, and most elected leaders can’t resist invoking God’s favor on behalf of the nation. Even James Madison, the great defender of religious freedom, declared days of prayer and thanksgiving as president. But it’s important to note that he later thought better of it, saying that such proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”

Only President Thomas Jefferson — who knew the perils of mixing church and state — refused to proclaim days of prayer. Although he was reviled for his stand, Jefferson argued that “every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the object proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and that right can never be safer than in their hands where the constitution has deposited it.”

Today the politics of prayer makes it highly unlikely that a president of either party will take a step back from the ubiquitous God-talk by government officials and rethink the wisdom of state-sponsored prayer.

It seems that prayer, not Social Security, is the real “third rail” of American politics. But in this case, at least, privatization would serve the cause of freedom.

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