An Incident in the Senate

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.

It was Senator Reid’s actions, not those of his enemies, that are truly in line with American values. The Christian right does not own this country, though some of them seem to think otherwise. But since the actual evidence of history does not support their theocratic aims, they simply try to invent a new history that does, lying and deceiving wherever it is expedient to advance their political aims. It’s impossible to tell whether today’s protestors are willing parties to that deception or whether, like many lay churchgoers, they sincerely believe the falsehoods handed down by their leaders. In either case, however, their actions are un-American in the truest sense of the word. They are welcome to practice their own faith to their heart’s content; they are not free to interfere with others’ equal right to do the same. By their overwhelming arrogance and reeking self-superiority, they have shown that they do not deserve to be part of our national compact. If they are so unappreciative of the wonderful freedoms granted to every citizen of this country by the Bill of Rights, they are hereby invited to leave, and take their bullying, monarchical notions with them.

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.

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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.

  • Greta Christina

    So here’s what I want to know in all this kerfuffle:

    Why does the U.S. Senate open with a prayer?

    What the heck happened to “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion?”

    I know, I know. It was a rhetorical question. It just bugs me, is all.

  • Greta Christina

    So here’s what I want to know in all this kerfuffle:

    Why does the U.S. Senate open with a prayer?

    What the heck happened to “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion?”

    I know, I know. It was a rhetorical question. It just bugs me, is all.

  • Nancy Benstead

    A voice of reason – at last. Thank you

  • Todd Sayre

    “Operation Save America” also claimed that this invocation “would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers”.

    I don’t think “our Founding Fathers” would have allowed a woman or a black man to deliver an invocation either. I, for one, am glad we don’t continue the prejudices of our ancestors.

  • vjack

    But why have any prayer at all? Isn’t that the real question we should all be asking?

  • Darren

    Well written, as ever. As a non-US citizen, I do think that America is a great nation, yet suffering from a debilitating disease known as Pervasive Religion. However, I was greatly pleased to see signs of recovery yesterday, in the form of an Atheism section at a Borders bookstore, and prominently at the front of the Religion section, not hidden away in some corner. Keep up the good work, and continue to show that there is an alternative. Perhaps one day your own book will grace that small section…?

  • Polly

    …Atheism section at a Borders bookstore, and prominently at the front of the Religion section, not hidden away in some corner

    I saw it for the first time last weekend when I made one of my frequent trips to Borders. I was really surprised…and gratified! I thought it was unusually daring of them. I took a few minutes to peruse “God is not Great”. (I was there to window shop)
    It really is a testament to the cultural inroads big-name atheists are making, here in the US.
    One person in a Starbucks who was reading “Letter to a Christian Nation” told me that he hoped it would spark some conversation. This is in a suburban city with churches on every block. These kinds of books are taking atheism out of the “nerdy”/science arena and into mainstream culture. So, for all the criticism Dawkins and others get, it seems to be working.
    Looking forward to seeing your book out there too, Adam.

  • Alex, FCD

    Why does the U.S. Senate open with a prayer?

    What the heck happened to “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion?”

    If I had to guess, I would say that there is no law that says the Senate has to open with a prayer, but they do it out of tradition.

  • BlackSun

    Hear, hear, Ebonmuse. That circus in the Senate was a national disgrace. I’m totally with you. If there’s going to be any prayer, it seems only constitutional that it be rotated equally among religious and non-religious so that the Senate doesn’t give the appearance of “…respecting an establishment of religion”

  • John P

    Why can’t they simply open each session with a statement to the effect:

    “We will now observe a moment of silence for members to reflect or pray as they deem appropriate”.

    Wouldn’t that be enough? It satisfies everyone other than those who insist on conspicuous legitimation of their beliefs.

  • Todd Sayre

    a moment of silence for members to reflect or pray as they deem appropriate

    That wouldn’t work. The two most important rules in Christian prayer seem to be:
    1. The prayer is said aloud.
    2. Everybody says the same prayer together.

    Maybe the Christian god is hard of hearing and you need so many voices shouting to get its attention? Maybe the Christian god only picks out a certain number of prayers to answer every day and you need to buy more tickets in the “prayer lottery” to increase your chance of winning? I’ve been observing them for two decades now and I’m still have no idea.

    I think most Christians would prefer a single vague and ecumenical prayer said aloud over allowing every person to make up their own minds about whether or not to pray and to whom and for what.

  • OMGF

    The video

    I found a video of the happenings.

  • The Ridger

    Plus – despite the words of Jesus about praying in public (rather, not doing so) – for most Christians the notion that someone might not be praying when they are is, apparently, horrible. Hence the shaming practice of sending students into the hall if they don’t want to participate. The moment of silence is the last thing they accept – and only if they’re forced to.

    The office of the chaplain has been in existence from the beginning:

    Throughout the years, the United States Senate has honored the historic separation of Church and State, but not the separation of God and State. The first Senate, meeting in New York City on April 25, 1789, elected the Right Reverend Samuel Provost, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, as its first Chaplain. During the past two hundred and seven years, all sessions of the Senate have been opened with prayer, strongly affirming the Senate’s faith in God as Sovereign Lord of our Nation. The role of the Chaplain as spiritual advisor and counselor has expanded over the years from a part-time position to a full-time job as one of the Officers of the Senate. The Office of the Chaplain is nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian. source:

    Apparently, “nonsectarian” is to be interpreted as “some form of ‘mere Christianity’” (to cite CS Lewis) but definitely Christian! This despite the clear intention of the Founders – to your quotes I’ll add this one from Jefferson:

    [A]n amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,”€™ so that [the preamble] should read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion”; the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.

    See – he even mentions Hindus!