Russell D. Moore, identified by PuffHo as the “newly-elected president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral concerns and public policy arm of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination,” has a new take on the First Amendment.
In a piece at PuffHo called “Why public prayer is about more than culture wars,” he carefully explains that preventing public prayers is, in fact, preventing freedom of religion.
His inspiration was the White House’s surprising and distressing siding with the defendants in the case of Town of Greece [New York] v. Galloway, in which the town is being sued for opening city council meetings with prayers. This case, which will be heard this year by the U.S. Supreme Court, is pivotal, for if that conservative court allows such prayers, it will overturn decades of precedents preventing public prayer as a violation of the First Amendment.
In his wisdom, Brother Moore tells us that the reverse is true: freedom of religion requires public prayers:
In fact, most of us support voluntary public prayer not because we oppose the separation of church and state but because we support it.
After all, at issue in this dispute, is the supposed “sectarian” nature of these public prayers. Few suggest that any invocation at all is unconstitutional — especially since invocations have been going on in such forums since the Founding Era. The problem is that these prayers are specifically Christian or specifically Jewish or specifically Jewish or specifically Wiccan, or what have you.
But that’s precisely the point. A prayer, by definition, isn’t a speech made to a public audience but is instead a petition made to a higher Being. For the government to censor such prayers is to turn the government into a theological referee, and would, in fact, establish a state religion: a state religion of generic American civil religious mush that assumes all religions are ultimately the same anyway. To remove the “sectarian” nature of prayer is to reduce such prayers to the level of public service announcements followed by “Amen.”
Really? An absence of religion is a “state religion”? That’s reminiscent of the argument that atheism is a religion.
In fact, I suggest that any invocation of god at all is unconstitutional, and that’s been the case for public meetings for a long time. And it doesn’t matter if the prayers are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim: they’re prayers to a deity, and that presumes, as Moore implies, the existence of a deity. Well, lots of Americans don’t accept that, and that’s precisely why the government should remain absolutely neutral on the issue of religion, i.e., no prayers at government meetings.
Moore’s piece is in fact the best example of religious doublespeak I’ve seen in a while. Have a gander at this:
Evangelicals pray in Jesus’ name not because we are seeking to offend our neighbors, but because we’re convinced that through Jesus is the only way we have access to God. We can’t do otherwise. Likewise, a Muslim shouldn’t be expected to speak of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” because one who could do so isn’t a Muslim at all.
When we allow evangelicals to pray as evangelicals, Catholics to pray as Catholics, Muslims to pray as Muslims, Jews to pray as Jews, we are not undermining political pluralism in our democracy, we’re upholding it.
That’s why these prayers are not an establishment of religion. The clergyperson offering the invocation isn’t an extension of the government. His or her prayers aren’t state-written or state-approved.
It doesn’t matter whether the prayers are state-written or specifically state-approved. If they’re uttered in public, the institution of public prayer becomes state-approved, and if the founders intended anything, it’s not that we should call on God—whichever God is on tap at the moment—in public meetings. Or will people like Moore allow atheist “prayers” that specifically call on our humanism and decry the existence of God? Here’s one: “Oh humanity, give us the rationality and access to the facts to make our decisions with wisdom, for there’s no God up there to help us.”
I doubt that would be approved! In fact, I’m not in favor of any invocations at all. Why can’t they just start the damn meeting without words of piety? And why, oh why, do religious people like Moore insist that they be allowed to parade their beliefs before public meetings? Isn’t it enough for them to pray in church, or on their own? The faithful just can’t help themselves from trying to share their Good (But Untrue) News with everyone else.
The infliction of religious beliefs on others who may not share those beliefs is unnecessary and offensive. It’s also divisive. The only divisiveness we need here is a stronger wall between church and state.