The Congressional Prayer Caucus

I wrote recently about an attack on nontheist Congressman Pete Stark by a right-wing group calling themselves the Christian Seniors Association. The CSA’s spokesman James Lafferty, incensed by the idea that atheists think they have a right to be represented in Congress as if they were human beings like everyone else, complained at length about the campaign of persecution waged against the hundreds of believing members of Congress by the single nonbelieving member:

That would be the day that religious Americans stood-up to the liberal bullies who are so determined to use the power of government to silence prayer and every other religious expression of free speech.

The absurdity of Lafferty’s statements should be obvious to all. Considering the overwhelming number of politicians who wear their faith on their sleeves and parade around their piety at every opportunity, it is plain that only the most hardcore, paranoia-steeped members of the religious right could possibly take this hysterical rhetoric seriously. In any case, the religious right’s language has never had much of a resemblance to reality. The overriding factor governing its leaders’ pronouncements is what degree of fear and anger they feel the need to whip up among their loyal followers, regardless of what the facts actually support.

As further evidence of the extent to which religious believers in Congress are being “silenced”, I give you the Congressional Prayer Caucus (via The Wall of Separation):

Throughout the more than 200-year history of our nation, prayer has played a vital role in strengthening the fabric of our society. The purposes of the Congressional Prayer Caucus are to 1) recognize the vital role that prayer by individuals of all faiths has played in uniting us as a people and in making us a more generous, more cooperative, and more forgiving people than we might otherwise have been; 2) collect, exchange, and disseminate information about prayer as a fundamental and enduring feature of American life; 3) use the legislative process – both through sponsorship of affirmative legislation and through opposition to detrimental legislation – to assist the nation and its people in continuing to draw upon and benefit from this essential source of our strength and well-being. (emphasis added)

The Congressional Prayer Caucus currently has twenty-one active members, plus one non-voting member and two who are no longer in office. It should not be a great surprise that all of them are Republicans, the party that has consistently stood for theocracy and the official establishment of Christianity in government.

Personally, as a voter and a constituent, I would not be happy if my representative was a member of such a group. The reason we have a government in the first place is because we need human effort to solve our problems! Our representatives should be working together to improve and safeguard our society, not imploring supernatural beings for magical assistance. Elected officials are not our national clergy, and if I wanted someone to pray for me or encourage me to pray more, there are a large number of private churches with ministers and priests who would be happy to perform that task. If a politician spent all their time boasting to constituents how often they were praying, anyone would have reason to doubt their dedication to the job.

Worse, the Prayer Caucus has the audacity to quote religious statements made by some of America’s greatest founders, and some of its strongest allies of state-church separation, in support of their aims. In one particularly laughable instance of omitting relevant context, they quote Benjamin Franklin’s call for daily prayers at the Constitutional Convention, while conveniently neglecting to mention that numerous attendees opposed the suggestion, that the convention as a whole rejected the proposal without even a vote, and that it was never brought up again. Unbelievably, they even quote Thomas Jefferson, whom, as the AU blog points out, refused to call for national days of prayer when he was president because he believed that would overstep the bounds of the government’s authority. Such facts would put the Prayer Caucus’ claims in a different light, to say the least.

The Caucus’ website does not elaborate on what they mean by their intent to “assist the nation” to pray. I can guess, however. It’s almost certainly the same package of religious establishments that the religious right has long promoted: government tax dollars flowing freely to faith-based groups, official proclamations and holidays encouraging people to pray more, bills trying to grant government employees such as teachers the ability to proselytize using the power of their office, court-stripping laws designed to throw up roadblocks to the enforcement of separation, and more. Fortunately, they have failed in most of these efforts so far (which should perhaps tell us something about the efficacy of prayer as a means of accomplishing one’s will).

But that does not change the ridiculousness of a 21st-century secular democracy even having a “prayer caucus” at all. It’s long past time we stopped relying on magic to solve our problems. (What next – a Congressional Rain Dance Caucus to help farmers in drought-stricken states?) What we really need instead is a Congressional Reason Caucus, devoted to defending rationality and secularism and upholding the principles of evidence-based decision-making. If more congresspeople were to follow in Pete Stark’s footsteps by declaring their nontheism, maybe we could take the first steps toward creating such a body.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Mark

    I received an advanced copy of a letter from Bill Sali (R-Idaho) today explaining why he voted against pulling the troops out of Iraq. This letter will be going to Idaho news media soon. I was surprised to see the first two paragraphs…

    Clear vision, not politics, should guide Congress

    By Congressman Bill Sali

    Sixty years ago, U.S. Senate chaplain Peter Marshall prayed that God would “give us clear vision, that we may know where to stand and what to stand for – because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything.”

    Those words are moving in their simplicity and honesty. Only with the grace of God, with strong values, deep conviction of principle and ongoing willingness to listen and learn can leaders gain “clear vision” of their responsibilities to citizens. When we believe in something – and stand firm in our principles and values – we gain a clear compass and a clear conscience to do the right thing for our country.

  • Reed Ulvestad

    I just looked and “my” congressman is a member :( I can’t wait until my next chance to vote against John Carter of Texas, because no amount of “reason” will ever work its way into his head…

  • The Exterminator

    Great post. One thing the Prayer Caucus site neglects to mention is whether or not these theocrats are caucusing during work time paid for by taxpayers. I suspect that they are. If so, a case could be made that their meetings are unconstitutional.

  • Terrence

    “Suppose you were a member of Congress. And suppose you were an idiot. But I repeat myself.” —Mark Twain

  • John P

    Isn’t that web site run by the government too? I do hope the funds for it are not coming out of the public coffers.

  • stillwaters

    I just looked also, and found that my ‘old’ representative was on the list. He got voted out last November. So, my optimism is still intact.

    I really like the idea of a Congressional Reason Caucus. I really think we ought to promote REASON every chance we get. Like the National Day of Reason. It should be a national holiday.

  • ferm

    I’m a liberal; I’m a professional scientist; I’m a Democrat; I’m a Christian. Go figure! Perhaps it’s because I welcome human differences while scientifically deleting superstition and misinformation from religion which ties these issues, for me, into one coherent structure. Worse news yet for those who would categorize me, especially relevent for the Aetheist: I believe Jesus was our first real Liberal. Think about it. He certainly defied those in power in the most interesting, consistent and determined ways. My question: Where does an Aetheist get their views or set their goals about how civilizations should live together? Forinstance, as a scientist (by the way, I don’t believe science is magic anymore than I believe religion is magic!), I know every experiment requires a strict set of guidelines to statistically determine the success or failure of the results. I am curous what the Aetheist perceives as guidelines to attain successful results for civilizations to survive; that is, collective guidelines that will stand up across all universes and eons of time. Such basic guidelines are essential. Whatever one believes, or doesn’t believe, about the value of a religion, a criteria to collectively TRY to aim for the survival of civilization(s)is simply expressed in (and I can see the Aetheists eyes rolling upward so hold on to your seats), the Ten Commandments. If one relates these commandments to history and to human nature they make a lot of sense! I know…there are comedians who have reduced them to two commandments as sufficient…but two aren’t enough. We’re talking centuries of time and people here! Ten, however, are sufficient; and as we have seen, compliance is tough. Let’s not take for granted that anyone’s good nature, good citizenry, or good innate strengths are ‘magically’ born into one’s being. One’s ‘good’ character and wide-spread decent citizenry has been set by a very powerful message on how to live and on how to live together. Controversy is great -yes! – but a collective civilization that respects the views of each other must win if we are to survive. Confusion arises when democracy is interpreted narrowly. These types of controversial elements are not to be confused as religion.

  • Polly

    Whatever one believes, or doesn’t believe, about the value of a religion, a criteria to collectively TRY to aim for the survival of civilization(s)is simply expressed in (and I can see the Aetheists eyes rolling upward so hold on to your seats), the Ten Commandments.

    Are you referring to the literal ten commanments found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5?
    If so, I have to ask, are you being facetious?
    Those are the guiding principles for the ages across all the universe? Blue laws, laws against engraving images(which could include secular art), laws that make atheism and non-YHWHistic religious belief a capital crime? A set of laws that couldn’t even bother to outlaw slavery, racism or sexism?
    What is your definition of “liberal”?

  • ferm

    To Polly: I don’t believe you thoughtfully included considering my last three sentences: ” (1)’…a collective civiilization that respects the views of each other…’; (2)’Confusion arises when democracy is interpreted narrowly.’ and, (3)
    ‘ These types of controversial elements are not to be confused as religion.’ “. Your issues are elements(such as the Blue Laws), have been democratically dropped from the law books; and ‘engraving images’? I see carvings, drawings, art, paintings, sculptures everywhere. A democratic society has the right to express their personal opinion about it. But none of this is a ‘graven image’ unless people are worshiping this art as if it were a GOD, and in a democracy people can even do this if they choose to short of subverting our government or offering murdered or tortured scrafices to it. Nor are there any acting laws on our books that make atheism or non-YHWHistic beliefs a capital crime. That is, folks who do not respect the beiefs of others do not have the legal right to be subversive or cruel to them. And where are you coming from to think that our law has not bothered to outlaw slavery, racism, or sexism? All of the above social issues continue to wrongfully occur; but our laws, yes, LAWS Polly, (and the overwhelming number of citizens who stomped around waving posters and going to jail for their beliefs about civil rights to be noticed and acted upon for change) have been updated! My definition of a liberal? It’s that we believe in each other’s feelings, and beliefs, and talents; and to encourage what ever it takes within ‘the system’ for each of us to actually take for granted their right to develop their hopes and dreams and talents as a positive lifelong experience. Yes, Polly, as a civilization we have a long way to go – it even seems at times like it is one step forward and two steps back. But such an effort, if you’re serious about fighting toward the positive goals you want to see happen, requires a collective focus – and I believe the heart and essence of our ‘how-to’ guidelines are imbedded within the elements of the Ten Commandments.

    Thanks for your response Polly. (ferm)

  • Polly

    I still don’t see where the 10 commandments fit in. Those laws are not part of our current system (despite some overlap)for the most part and we’re better off for it. Example: Religious freedom is a better goal than stoning someone for worshiping other non-YHWH gods, Commandments #1-3. I agree that we have improved our laws, which we should continue to refine.

    Or, are you saying that the Questions that the 10 commandments tried to answer are the key ones to be answered? Not that we should accept the specific answers originally proposed?
    That would be a different discussion.