The U.S. Senate traditionally opens each day’s session with a prayer, and today’s was a first: the invocation was given by Rajan Zed, a Hindu priest who was invited by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This was the first time a representative of Hinduism has ever been invited to do this.
However, there was an ugly incident that disrupted the occasion. As Zed began to speak, he was interrupted by three Christians in the visitors’ gallery shouting at the top of their lungs, calling Zed’s prayer “wicked” and an “abomination”. (They were promptly arrested and removed.) The Christian right group “Operation Save America” took credit for the incident, issuing a press release praising the three loudmouthed bigots for protesting the Senate’s decision to “plac[e] the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the One True God, Jesus Christ”.
Robert Green Ingersoll confronted similar prejudice in 1890 and laid bare its hypocrisy with cutting wit:
These gentlemen are in great fear for the future of our most holy and perfectly authenticated religion… They have informed Congress that “all classes of Chinamen worship idols;”… that this heathen god has “huge jaws, a big red tongue, large white teeth, a half-dozen arms, and big, fiery eyeballs.”
…No wonder that these members of the committee were shocked at such an image of God, knowing as they did that the only true God was correctly described by the inspired lunatic of Patmos in the following words:
“And there sat in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp, two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.”
“Operation Save America” also claimed that this invocation “would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers”. Benjamin Franklin might have had something to say about that, as he did here in describing the building of a nondenominational chapel:
Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.
And likewise Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence:
It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg…. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion, and whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men, governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? Difference of opinion is advantageous to religion.
I don’t think these Christians should be imprisoned – it would only feed their self-congratulatory delusions of martyrdom – and in all likelihood, they won’t be. Instead, I have a much better idea, one that will put these theocratic bigots in their place and is also a proud upholding of America’s tradition of official government neutrality towards religion.
We are a nation of many faiths, and if the Senate session absolutely must be opened with prayer, let us invite representatives of as many different religions as possible, on a rotating basis – the more, the merrier. Jews and Christians should get their fair turn, but let’s also bring in Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, Native American religions, Taoists, Sikhs, Rastafarians, Wiccans, and anyone else who cares to apply. And let’s not overlook one group in particular – the 15% or more of Americans who are not religious, a far larger number than any non-Christian church and most Christian denominations. Let’s invite an atheist to open the session with a secular benediction expressing hope that reason and human conscience will guide the decisions of our elected officials.
A rotating, non-preferential prayer schedule would serve many valuable purposes. It would be a powerful symbolic reminder that America has no official religion, and that all citizens are equal under the law regardless of their choice of faith. It would reaffirm the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution and show that we are all represented by the government that our votes put into power. And last but not least, it would be a stinging rebuke to the Christian right, and that can only be a good thing. Their impotent, whining temper tantrums make it exceedingly clear that they think they have the god-given right to lord it over everyone else, and the more obvious that is to the American people, the more we can expect people to turn away from their agenda of theocracy and intolerance.