If any more evidence were required that a nation whose Constitution guarantees individual religious liberty does not need members of the clergy presiding over and pontificating at public events, it was provided at the 9/11 memorial ceremony by the numerous references to God and an afterlife from family members of those who died in the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center,
Many talked about their belief that a spouse, a parent, a sister, or a brother was “watching over” them from heaven and that they would see their loved one again. Obviously, I don’t believe in family reunions in an afterlife but my own view is irrelevant. It is the absolute right of any American citizen to stand up and make a personal statement of faith on such an occasion as long as it is personal and does not presume to speak for other citizens or the nation as a whole.
At the same time, is absolutely wrong to to impose group obeisance to religion, whether a particular faith or a general belief in God, by drafting a member of the clergy to provide a religious imprimatur for public ceremonies or the conduct of public business. It is wrong even though such homage to religion has become a common, extra-constitutional practice. It is wrong when the prayers are as bland and nondenominational as those now offered by Senate and House chaplains. It is even more wrong when the prayers are specifically denominational (and most of the legal disputes in this area have arisen because of the insistence of Christian conservatives that they are being denied their right to practice their religion if they are not allowed to exercise dominion over public proceedings).
It is one thing for a grieving survivor to express individual faith that he will see his lost loved one again, and it is quite another for a clergy member to give an invocation insisting that “America” stands for belief in God and that God is watching out for all of us. The former statement is an expression of personal freedom; the latter is an attempt to force those of us who think differently into an equation of religion with patriotism that contradicts both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution..
The real question is why those who want to force their religion into every aspect of public life think that compulsion benefits either religion or government. As the 9/11 speeches demonstrated once again and as public opinion polls consistently show, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe not only in a personal God but in an afterlife in heaven. Many fewer believe in hell, as befits a people captivated by the notion of American exceptionalism.
The heaven in which Americans believe is, more likely than not, a Christian long-term care facility. Judaism holds much hazier ideas about heaven, and a Jewish paradise (whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist) definitely doesn’t involve Jesus’s intervention at the Last Judgement and his sitting at the right hand of God the Father.
Religion has done very well in the United States, largely because the Constitution’s deliberate omission of God and its prohibition against government favoritism of any faith have encouraged a pluralism that existed nowhere else in the world until well into the twentieth century. So why do the representatives of religious conservatism feel impelled to force a minority (albeit a growing one) of religious skeptics, on every possible occasion, to listen to official accolades to a God in whom they do not believe?
The Reverend Martin E. Marty, a Lutheran minister, one of the most distinguished religious scholars in this country, and a contributor to “On Faith,” once suggested to me that all of these seemingly symbolic battles over matters such as school prayer and displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses are really about “ownership and dominion” rather than faith. These symbolic acts are saying to religious minorities and atheists, “This is our country. Whatever the Constitution says, whatever you may believe, we Christians are the ones in charge.”
In June, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the Sussex County, Del., County Council, which has turned a deaf ear to repeated complaints about its practice of opening every council meetings with the “Protestant” version of the Lord’s Prayer. The plaintiffs challenging the practice are all long-time residents, one a retired Lutheran minister.
The chief difference between the traditional “Catholic” and English “Protestant” Lord’s Prayer is that Catholics say “forgive us our trespasses” and Protestants (with the exception of Episcopalians) generally say, “forgive us our debts.” Lest you consider this a silly distinction, recall that in England and on the continent of Europe, people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were tortured and killed for having a Bible with the “wrong” version of the prayer. In nineteenth century America, Catholics founded parochial schools to protect their children (until this practice faded away in multi-religious cities long before the Supreme Court prohibited it in mid-twentieth century) from corruption by the evil Protestant words “forgive us our debts” instead of the Catholic “forgive us our trespasses.” Of course, neither version of this Christian prayer ought to open any meeting of elected officials.
In Sussex County public institutions, there is quite a history of sectarian religious practices that offend minorities. Mona Dobrich, who grew up thirty years ago as the only Jew attending public school in Georgetown, Del., became the target of local animosity when, after her daughter’s high school graduation in 2004, she protested a presiding minister’s invocation describing Jesus as the only way to truth. Dobrich, an Orthodox Jew, told the New York Times that when she was growing up, local Christians treated her faith with respectful interest. But she said her own son was mocked in school for wearing a yarmulke. The Dobriches eventually moved away to Wilmington because of the harassment.
The idea that ours is a Christian government and a Christian nation is part of what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “the one hundred per-cent mentality” in his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). This mindset, Hoftadter argues, reflects “a mind totally committed to the full range of the dominant popular fatuities and determined that no one shall have the right to challenge them. This type of mentality is a relatively recent synthesis of fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist Americanism, very often with a heavy overlay of severe fundamentalist morality.” Although this book was written two decades before the political rise of the Christian right, it offers a perfect and prescient description of the ideology that insists on public religious symbolism as part of the “American way of life.”
Those who represent a “100 percent mentality” are outraged when, even though dozens of people who lost relatives in the 9/11 attacks have mentioned God’s personal importance to them, there is no member of the clergy on hand to impose a benevolent God on those in the audience (and you can bet there were some, although they didn’t say so) who consider the terrorist attacks just one more bit of evidence that God does not exist.
As the numbers of American secularists grow, so to do the ranks of the 100 percenters. They sit on school boards that defy generations of Supreme Court decisions and couldn’t care less about how a Jewish student feels when she has to hear Jesus deified before she receives her high school diploma. They have contempt for atheists who don’t appreciate having to sit in audiences at publicly financed events and hear the clergy begging God to bless America in much the same spirit as the priests of Baal prayed for rain.
In 1884, Robert Ingersoll remarked, “In the House of Representatives in Washington I once heard a chaplain pray for what he must have known was impossible. Without a change of countenance, without a smile, with a face solemn as a sepulchre, he said: ‘I pray thee, O God, to give Congress wisdom.’“ That’s why they called Ingersoll the “Great Agnostic.”