October 06, 2014

A Tale of Three Cities: The problem with public prayer illustrated nicely

Prayer in public is a hotly contested issue.

On the one hand, Christians--and it is almost invariably Christians in our nation--argue that not being allowed to pray in public violates their freedom to exercise their religion. They argue that atheists, agnostics and religious minorities can simply excuse themselves from the prayer, or they cannot participate. Frequently, they cite violence in schools as a reason that prayer should be allowed back in.

On the other, you have folks that argue that such practices are alienating. I am one of them. There are also those of us that believe that this shouldn't be an issue at all because it inherently conflicts with Christian teachings on the nature of prayer.

Today, we're looking at stories from three different cities, and how they illustrate the problems with public prayer.

Let's have a whirl, shall we?

A Christian Pastor Explains Why Prayer in Schools is a Bad Idea™

Dr. Robert G. Wilkinson recently published a column on the topic. He gave seven reasons, but I am only going to highlight a handful:

  • It would not be fair or just. Most of those advocating prayer in schools are advocating Christian prayer. If Christian prayer were to be allowed, then prayers of other religions (Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, etc.) would have to be allowed as well. They are citizens and pay taxes that build, operate, and maintain schools; therefore, they have equal rights.
  • The places for prayer and religious instruction are the home, the church, the synagogue, the mosque, etc. It is the parent's responsibility to education their children in religious matters, not the schools.
  • Jesus Christ would not vote for prayer in public schools. He never forced himself, his teachings, or his prayers on anyone.
I'm going to stop there, but I encourage you to follow the link above.

I'm especially keen on the last concept: Christ would not vote for prayer in public schools. In Matthew 6, just before the Lord's Prayer, the following can be found:

5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Here we have a specific admonition against prayer in public. I agree with Wilkinson--I don't think Jesus would vote for it either.

 Atheists Deserve a Fair Shake

In terms of prayer in public, the legal precedent is that the invocation at a public event--in this case, I'm referring to government as public--can be given by anyone of a variety of backgrounds, including nonbelievers.

And yet, we have letters to the editor like this one from Dallas:

Mayor Todd Gottel of Rowlett won’t allow the Metroplex Atheists of Rowlett to give an invocation, which is sometimes but not always a prayer, before City Council meetings. This is in spite of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of all groups, including atheists, to not be discriminated against in the giving of invocations. 
Some might wonder what type of invocation that an atheist-humanist might present; that is a fair question. Though he or she won’t mention a god, they might mention our common humanity or the empathy we share for our fellow human beings. Things that the religious and the nonreligious can agree upon. 
The government is prohibited by our Constitution from taking a position on religion, including endorsing or furthering it. The government should be neutral, but Mayor Gottel believes that his religious beliefs should be favored because he is mayor. Atheists, no matter how despised, are not second-class citizens. 
We want neutrality by the government when it comes to religion. Many would be aghast with a motto that said, “One nation, under no God,” but when we ask for equality, we are either ignored or accused, strangely, of persecution. If Christianity is true, it does not need or require the help of the mayor of Rowlett or anyone else.

Here we have a secular community that is actively discriminated against. If we were to prevent a Christian from praying in public, we'd be burned in effigy (which is a far better fate than the alternative a few centuries ago), and yet, they are completely secure in their right to bar our public participation in invocations.

I wonder if an atheist were to complain about prayer what this mayor would say? With near certainty I guess that the solution would not be to bar prayer. It would probably be suggested that the hypothetical citizen could simply leave the room or not participate.

 While I've reproduced the letter in entirety, the link is still worth a look for the comments section...

Turnabout's fair play.

In Escambia County, Florida, a county commissioner exited a meeting where the invocation was going to be performed by a pagan. The following quote explains his motivation:

Robertson, who describes himself as a Christian, told a reporter, “People may not realize it, but when we invite someone a minister to pray they are praying for the county commissioners for us to make wise decisions and I’m just not going to have a pagan or satanic minister pray for me.”

And yet, he would feel entirely comfortable foisting that on someone else--such as the pagan in question.

Others also responded to the action:

According to The Friendly Atheist, one board member threatened to walk out on Suhor and took to his personal website to criticize the pagan and his religion, writing, “I mean, should the majority of persons in attendance at one of our meetings really have to listen to a satanic verse? What if a “Witch Doctor” comes to the podium with a full-on costume, chicken-feet, a voodoo doll and other associated over-the-top regalia? It could easily get out of hand…”

 That is precisely what the ability to pray before public meetings means, my friends. That everyone has the equal opportunity to pray before hand, and that opportunity should be accommodated. Either we have no prayer or we have equal prayer.

The pagan in question has a lovely agenda, I think:

His goal he says, is to eliminate them altogether and substitute in a moment of silence. 
“I think they should not be offering a prayer or sponsoring a prayer of any particular religion,” He explained. “Instead I think they should have an more exclusive moment of silence which allows anyone to pray according to their own conscience.”

I think the moment of silence is incredibly apt. A moment of reflection and personal thought...perfect.

At best, prayer in public is a troublesome concept. At worst, it's an active disobedience to scripture.

So which is it? All prayer or no prayer?

Or do we disregard our Constitution and legal precedent altogether?

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