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.
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.