Monday, May 5, 2014
Supremes Greece Slippery Prayer Slope
Giddy. Flush with success. Relieved.
Evangelicals today are relishing what appears to be an infrequent victory of late in the Supreme Court. In the case of Greece v. Galloway, a majority of justices determined that when a municipality allows prayer before an official meeting, they do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In other words, prayers before city council meetings are protected by the United States Constitution.
Here in Texas, we've had prayers given before city council meetings for as long as I've attended them. But frankly, this is Texas, one of the most conservative states in the union, whereas New York is one of the most liberal. And it's not like the prayers I've heard down at City Hall are particularly accurate in their theology, or evangelical, or all that different from a pep talk.
Yet the point is that, as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, the town of Greece, near Rochester in western New York State, isn't violating the Constitution by allowing prayers to be voiced in public before the commencement of their council's business sessions.
Meanwhile, I can recall a furor not to long ago that also came to us from Greece. It involved a grandmotherly school bus monitor named Karen Klein who was subjected to verbal and mental abuse by schoolchildren in that same suburban Rochester town. Remember? About two years ago, towards the end of the school year, a cell phone video surfaced showing Klein being mercilessly taunted by kids over whom she was supposed to hold some semblance of authority.
Public outrage over the way Klein was treated, and frustration over the subject of school bullying in general, yielded her and her family a Disney cruise, plus over $650,000 in cash from people across North America who funded an online donation effort on her behalf. Klein used some of that money to start an eponymous non-profit organization that fights bullying.
Maybe without having prayers in their city council meetings, the town of Greece would be even worse off than it is, producing kids who would so willingly and disgustingly taunt anybody - let alone somebody like Klein. This is where the caution of expecting too much out of such demonstrations of religiosity comes into play. Praying a prayer at a government meeting doesn't necessarily change anybody or anything, does it? It's just something Christians like knowing is still possible, and something that helps console people who want to believe that religion really is as good as faith.
But what religions has the Greece town council allowed to participate in their prayer ritual? Yes, the people offering the prayers have been nearly all from the Christian faith, but they've had prayers led by somebody from the Jewish, Baha'i, and Wicca faiths as well. And this is something Christians can embrace?
Now, having a Jewish prayer wouldn't exactly be a bad thing, but that prayer wouldn't be offered in Christ's name. The Baha'i folks say they worship God, but they've added a lot to their understanding of the God of the Bible, obfuscating the Gospel, and supplanting Christ with Bahá’u’lláh, the Iranian man who invented Baha'i. And Wiccans worship Satan - good grief! - so how edifying would listening to one of their prayers be?
The easy answer to why evangelicals are so pleased with today's Supreme Court decision likely stems from our country's ongoing debate over the separation of church and state, with today's decision appearing to validate Christianity's traditional legacy in America's governance. Many religious people feel affirmed when Nativity scenes are allowed to decorate public parks, or plaques of the Ten Commandments are allowed on walls inside courthouses. There's a certain nostalgia about America's continuity of religious language in the public square, regardless of whether anybody believes it to be true, and allows it to govern their lives.
So, how is Christ honored when people who pray in public don't even have to believe in Him? How is God glorified when people can utter words before a group of elected officials that God cannot hear, since they're being spoken from a heart that does not accept Him as Lord? After all, the only prayers God can hear from unbelievers is the sinner's prayer, when repentant people turn to Him as their Lord and Savior.
And what of prayers from legitimate, born-again believers? Such prayers may indeed be well and good, presuming they're prayed out of an honest heart. But whose faith is dependent upon such prayers from a council chamber? If your city council recognized a Baha'i and a Wicca prayer as equally as a Christian one, that doesn't exactly speak to your municipality's reverence for the holy God of the Bible.
It's good for the freedom of religion that we cherish as Americans, and that's about it.
"The content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts," according to the Associated Press. Not exactly an affirmation of orthodox, Biblical prayers to the holy, sovereign, redeeming Creator God of the Universe.
In fact, such a "win" for Christians could open up the door further to the religious pluralism and inclusiveness that is eroding Christianity's influence in our society. Take the inroads advocates for gay marriage are making even within our faith. Consider the decline in church attendance across the country, the decline in heterosexual marriage, and the impunity with which our culture appears to defy conventional morality. All the Supreme Court has affirmed today is that as long as prayers to God are innocuous and nonthreatening, in a Joel Osteen sort of way, they're no worse than a prayer in the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh, or Satan.
It's true that not every prayer a Christ follower prays has to be stuffed to the gills with theology and doctrine. We can thank God for the political freedoms He's given us, the places in which He allows us to live, and the opportunities we have to participate in the civic life of our community. We can ask Him for wisdom, protection, strength, and courage, and do it all without overtly denigrating anybody who doesn't believe in the Person through Whom, and to Whom, we're praying.
But what kind of freedom is that?
Perhaps its more freedom than we'd otherwise have if the Supremes had chucked the whole notion of any prayers of any kind during a public meeting. But is it the kind of freedom we think the courts have protected for us? One of the reasons the five justices in the majority allowed Greece to continue with its prayers is because members of the audience who don't want to endorse any prayer are free to step outside so they don't hear it. That's an option evangelicals may end up using quite a bit, now that the public prayer door has been propped open to any religion with a deity to whom its devotees can talk.
If anything, today's decision means nothing has changed. And while that's not exactly a bad thing, it doesn't mean we're making progress, either. It simply means that on America's version of the road to Heaven, a lot more lanes have been added.
We need to be careful what we hope for. Sometimes we get it.