Pod people: Reindeers and the quest for nonsectarian prayer

So why, you ask, is that generic civic Christmas scene on top of this GetReligion post as the temperatures in the Greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area finally begin to show signs of real summer baseball weather? I am assuming that, at this point, we have seen our last snow flurries in these parts.

I’ll come back to the reindeer in a minute. Trust me, there is a logical connection between that image and the subject material in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which as usual is a joint production of the GetReligionistas and host Todd Wilken of Issues, Etc. Click here to listen in.

For now, click pause on your reflections on years of the “reindeer wars,” which is actually one of the busiest fronts in America’s lively “Christmas Wars.” I want you to picture another church-state battlefield.

Let’s pretend that it is 10 minutes before a meeting of a government body in some typical American setting, perhaps even a place with a name like Town of Greece or what have you.

On this night there is an issue before this government body — perhaps a zoning question affecting a booming evangelical megachurch — that is special relevance to religious institutions of all kinds, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, etc., etc. So there are going to be lots of different kinds of religious believers present. Atheists and agnostics are also highly involved in this dispute, stressing that religious groups should not receive special rights.

Now, under the recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision, this Town of Greece meeting will open with prayer.

Try, try, try to imagine a prayer on this occasion that would please all of the participants. Depending on who is up to bat in the community’s much disputed multi-faith prayer rotation, there are a number of possibilities and let’s keep score. Ready?

Yes, you could have an evangelical pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Who is happy? (Of course, these believers could gather outside on the sidewalk or steps and pray to their hearts content, even out loud, but who wants to settle for that. Right?)

You could have a liberal or traditional Jewish rabbi pray (substitute liberal or Jewish Islamic cleric if you which). Who is happy, including those present from among the traditional and/or liberal bodies in the faith who lost the coin flip?

You could have an agnostic, or a liberal mainline Protestant, or a Unitarian offer a completely nonsectarian prayer that would sound something like this:

As we gather here today as members of (insert organization’s name here), we pray that we are ever mindful of opportunities to render our service to fellow citizens and to our community. Keeping in mind always the enduring values of life, exerting our efforts in those areas and on those things upon which future generations can build with confidence. Let us continue to strive to make a better world. Amen.

Who is genuinely pleased, other than a few lawyers, with this supposedly safe prayer?

Would this kind of text even please the atheists who would be present? I mean, it’s still a prayer. Precisely who is pleased by a government-approved generic prayer and who in the U.S. government should be granted the power to say which doctrines are acceptable for inclusion in these prayers and which ones are not acceptable.

As I said in my previous post, this is precisely the angle that Justice Anthony Kennedy took in his majority opinion and the one that way too many journalists failed to explore in mainstream coverage.

Meanwhile, thinking legally, there are other options in this bizarre scene. You could have all brands of believers pray out loud at the same time, creating a kind of interfaith Pentecost effect. Who is happy with that?

You could go for the old “moment of silence” option — which who mean local officials would need to surrender their ceremonial spoken prayer victory won at the U.S. Supreme Court. Who is happy with this option? Certainly not trye believers in faith traditions in which meaningful prayer requires words spoken out loud, physical gestures and/or references to specific doctrines.

But here is one option that is not possible in this case: It’s impossible to stick a reindeer next to the manger scene, the Menorah and the Jedi Knight in this church-state picture.

No, that’s one “equal access” option that does not work in this symbolic spoken prayer puzzle that is part of what is clearly a government meeting.

Say what? What am I talking about?

Click here. Enjoy the podcast.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    So it’s OK if it isn’t a religious service?
    So what’s next? An enactment of “The Protocols of the Elders”?
    Why is it only offensive if it is a religious service? I don’t get that.
    BTW I’ve lived in the Far East. A Japanese tea ceremony is not really a religious ceremony – it’s cultural. If anything, it’s vaguely Buddhist, not Shinto.

    • tmatt

      To what are you responding, in the contents of my post?

      • Reformed Catholic

        I think she mean to post that on the “Some new facts on Harvard’s Satanists from Daily News” blog post.

        • Julia B

          Yup.

  • Dingo Dongo

    Some errors:

    * “which who mean” should be “which would mean”
    * “trye believers” should be “true believers”

  • Jane Dunn

    As a lawyer and as a Christian, I am just as bugged by bad reporting on legal issues as the GR bloggers are bugged by bad reporting on religion. Unfortunately, as I commented on your earlier post on this case, you have apparently misunderstood the legal issues at stake in the Town of Greece case. So, the reason that the press is not reporting on or analyzing the what you keep calling the “equal access” issues is because there are *no* equal access issues in this case. Please read the opinions again. There is no discussion of access to a public or limited public forum at all.

    In equal access cases, the rights of individuals or groups to access to a public or limited public forum in order to exercise their religion are at issue. For example, a church sues to use a public park to hold an old-fashioned camp meeting revival rally because rally or protest or party permits are routinely given for labor union or environmental group rallies and big birthday parties but not for religious rallies.

    In contrast, the plaintiffs in the Town of Greece were not alleging that their own rights to religious exercise were being denied. To the contrary, in Town of Greece, the plaintiffs asserted that the way in which e issue the Town itself spoke — by engaging in what the cases call “legislative prayer — constituted an impermissible establishment of religion. So, the rights at issue were the Town’s, not those of any individuals or groups.

    I notice you are quick to fix typos. Why don’t you address these substantive problems with your reporting?


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