Russell Moore is the guy who replaced Richard Land as the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He’s generally seen as a moderating force who is trying to pull the SBC back from being so overtly political. But he’s making the same bad arguments, and adding one atrocious new one, on the issue of legislative prayer.
President Obama and religious conservatives are rarely on the same side of the culture wars. But a case now headed to the Supreme Court has forced a sliver of consensus between the White House and right-leaning people of faith on — of all things — praying in public, in Jesus’ name. Perhaps this little truce in the red state/blue state divide can give Americans of all faiths, and no faith, an opportunity to think about why our pluralistic society is better off with uncensored, unscripted public prayers.
But this is not about “praying in public.” People can and do pray in public all over the country, every single day. They even do so on public property, in national parks and on courthouse grounds during rallies and protests. And no one complains about it or tries to stop them, not even the ACLU or the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The religious right’s use of phrases like “religion in the public square” is fundamentally dishonest. At issue is not the expression of religion in public, it’s the government acting in an official capacity to set aside time specifically for Christian prayers.
But that caricature of a theocracy-seeking evangelicalism, hell-bent on establishing official up-to-code prayers everywhere “in Jesus’ name” — as easy as it is — doesn’t line up with reality, anyway. Conservative evangelicals don’t want government support for our faith, because we believe God created all consciences free and a state-coerced act of worship isn’t acceptable to God. Moreover, we believe the gospel isn’t in need of state endorsement or assistance. Wall Street may need government bailouts but the Damascus Road never does.
Pretty words, but completely meaningless. The fact is that local boards and state legislatures who hold prayers to open their meetings, even if they use some sort of open system where any religious group in the community can get a spot to say their prayers, know full well that 99% of the time those prayers are going to be Christian. What they are demanding is that a government body set aside time for them to engage in their religious exercises while everyone else has to either participate or watch. And the moment a non-Christian is picked to offer an invocation, you hear howls of outrage. This is pure Christian privilege — we have the right to force you to listen to or participate in our prayers whether you like it or not.
But that’s precisely the point. A prayer, by definition, isn’t a speech made to a public audience but is instead a petition made to a higher Being. For the government to censor such prayers is to turn the government into a theological referee, and would, in fact, establish a state religion: a state religion of generic American civil religious mush that assumes all religions are ultimately the same anyway.
Utter nonsense. Not setting aside time at a meeting of a government body does not “censor prayer.” There are thousands of government meetings every day that don’t begin with a prayer, but no one is being censored. I agree with Moore that this distinction between “sectarian” prayers and non-sectarian ones that the courts have developed is meaningless gibberish, and even dangerous for the reasons he cites (it puts the government in the business of deciding which prayers can be said and which cannot; in reality, none should be said in that setting, ever).