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MY WORD: “For the Benefit and Blessings of the Council”- Musings on the Prayer Issue

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During the hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia Penn., the delegates to the Constitutional Convention came to a rut in the road. The group, whose goal fell nothing short of drawing up the legal framework for a whole new nation, had fractured into exhausting squabbles.

One delegate, Ben Franklin, decided to try to focus everyone’s attention on that goal and gave a speech proposing that if they could not come to an accord on their own, they might need some divine assistance in the form of a prayer led by outside clergy.

Now if these men had intended to form a “Christian” or even a religious nation, you would think that they would have immediately agreed with old Ben. However, the response was not at all positive. The suggestion actually caused more rancor among the delegates.

Alexander Hamilton stated that this idea might cause “some disagreeable animadversions (heated disputes)” and might also alert the public to their inability to get the job done. Some noted that the convention had no money to pay a clergyman. Gouverneur Morris, one of the most influential delegates to the convention stated, “Reason tells us we are but men, and we are not to expect any particular interference from heaven in our favor.” James Madison took daily notes during the Convention and recorded, “after several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter by adjournment, the adjournment carried without any vote on the matter.”

Franklin then later seconded a motion by Edmund Randolph to move the prayer exercise to the upcoming July 4th celebration. This idea also fell to silence and no votes. Franklin then noted in the margin of his prayer proposal speech, “The Convention, except for three or four persons, felt prayer unnecessary.” 

Unnecessary? 

The biggest venue in terms of significance in our American history and those founders not only accomplished their huge task without prayer, they actively chose not to have one! 

I guess times have changed as we have legislative and law making venues all over this country where the lawmakers and civil servants insist that they can not do their jobs without some sort of religious invocation.

“Part of what we are trying to do here is to maintain a multi-religious society in a peaceful and harmonious way. And every time the Court gets involved in things like this, it seems to make it worse.”  Justice Elena Kagan, oral arguments, Greece v. Galloway

I read the full text of the recent Supreme Court decision on government prayer and boy was she ever right!

The Supreme Court looked at an invocation practice by the town of Greece NY, where very obviously overt and aggressive Christian prayers were being allowed to occur on a regular basis, and established their legitimacy in government venues. The main author of the 5-4 decision “logic” was Justice Kennedy. Justice Kennedy discussed our founding history too, but somehow managed to overlook the narrative that I provided above. The Shelbyville City Council also managed to skip the same information when it used a series of “Whereas…” historical markers to justify their Resolution to invite clergy to pray at meetings.  I find that curious and rather disingenuous on the part of both bodies of government.

“When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself, and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, if its being a bad one.” Ben Franklin, 1780

Justice Kennedy based a big part of his argument against mandating that town council prayers be non-sectarian on the fear of the government getting too far into regulating religious speech.

Apparently it is better to trample the rights of minority faiths or non-believers than to have government oversee the content of prayers. Message to minorities… prayers are more important than you are.

The fun part of this argument is that after all is said about the grave sin of government prescribing prayer content, the Justice discusses what can not be said in these prayers!

Got that?

The no-no list for clergy is:

1) Denigration of non-believers – bulletin for Justice Kennedy; the presence of prayers in any government venue denigrates non-belief.

2) Denigration of minority faiths – once again a note to the Justice; “In Jesus’ name is not exactly favored by Jews or Hindus.

3) Threatening damnation – so hell is officially nixed by the government.

4) Preaching conversion or proselytizing.  I guess it’s up to us poor citizens to determine where that line gets crossed. Good luck everyone.

“ I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvres to bring about a legal ascending of one sect over another.” Thomas Jefferson, 1799

A big segment of discussion in the Greece case was over the issue of “coercion,” especially in small town venues where the audience is small and people tend to know each other.

The court here basically said that coercion in this setting isn't really a problem for adults.

No?

I wonder where Justice Kennedy lives. I personally experienced a man who stood up next to me during a town council meeting for the prayer, I didn’t stand, and kept one eye closed in reverence, one eye on me and his mouth in a very obvious frown.

And if you don’t think my non-participation in the prayer didn’t register with the council members or the audience, then I have a bridge to sell you. I remember when I challenged the posting of the Ten Commandments in Shelbyville’s government offices in 2011.

There were many practicing Christians who either called me on the phone or buttonholed me in the Kroger to give me the “thumbs up” or whispered “atta girl” or “we all knew it was wrong”.

While I certainly appreciated the comments, I wondered why they were so hushed and why they left it to the non-believer to speak up. But now I know – coercion.

If you think it doesn’t go on within adult communities or church communities, then I wonder where you live.

Justice Kennedy said that those of us who are uncomfortable sitting in our own government building and wondering if we inadvertently walked into a church should act like adults and roll with the punches of “opinions” we don’t like. I guess prayers are now “opinions” just like crosses are simply generic grave markers according to Justice Scalia.

And atheists? Oh, what to do with the atheists? During the oral arguments for this case last November there was quite a discussion about “the atheists”. It was generally agreed that they have no “remedy” in this issue.

However, Justice Kennedy in his deep wisdom and sense of democracy found the elusive remedy. Atheists can just walk out of that portion of their government’s meeting or hold off coming in until the prayer is over!

Brilliant!

Of course, he also pointed out that atheists also have the remedy of complaining in a public comment section of a meeting. We all know how well that worked out for Rich Lane, whose repeated efforts to remove prayers from city council meetings has fallen on deaf ears, and which elicited a rather harsh response from one council member.

“The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and engrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” Thomas Jefferson, 1800

I couldn’t have said it any better myself, but I sure wonder what our local clergy would say to that observation. I really don’t understand why any clergy would want to allow government to put prohibitions on their prayers. But then, I don’t understand why any believer would put the name of “God” on a metal plate just above a car’s exhaust pipe either.

Seriously, I feel I have to note for my Christian friends that this Supreme Court ruling will have the effect of hardening more hearts against Christianity, notwithstanding Tony Perkins’ celebrations. It will also drive more young people out of the churches. Kids don’t like discrimination, usually.

Here is a little perspective on that from a comment in a blog on the prayer ruling. “I grew up in the UK 50 years ago when Christianity was pervasive in government and look a the UK now. Only about 5% of the population actually attend church regularly, less that 50% believe in any kind of god, church buildings are falling to ruin or have been converted to other uses… and the former head of the church of England has declared the country as “post Christian”.

For those who support sectarian Christian prayer at government, I say: be careful what you wish for. Entanglement of government with Christianity brings the divisiveness of politics into the religion thereby degrading the bigger message of God. … In America polls demonstrate that about 32% of Millenials are non religious and overall there is a trend that the younger people are, the less religious they are. In other words, some day, God willing, the city council could be all atheists.

And finally there is the issue of fairness, which seems to keep popping up in front of our city council in various forms. Thumbs up here to retired Rev. Moffat!

My friend Rich Lane, who deserves so much more respect and support for his willingness to come publicly forward with his prayer challenges than he received, consistently offered a moment of silence as a replacement for the invocation policy.

Since both the Supreme Court and the Shelbyville City Council noted that the prayers are really for the benefit of the lawmakers/council members, why not have the prayers said privately in a separate room before the meeting?

One local clergyman has already offered to do that.  I can draw no other conclusion than this: the silent rejection a moment of silence is because the actual intention of our city council is not to “express their respect for the diversity of religious denominations and faiths represented and practiced among the citizens of Shelby County,” as noted in the resolution on page 7. It is to use government to further the ideas of the Christian faith and to give it a veneer of government favor and approval in order to dominate. It’s an old story, but apparently one that is still playing out on our planet.

Prayer in government divided the founders.

Prayer in government divided the citizens of Greece, N.Y., and now Shelbyville, Ky., – not to mention spoiling some friendships.

Prayer in government divides clergy and divided the Supreme Court (Christians vs. Jews). 

A great track record for prayer, wouldn’t you say?  However, I’m sure it must please “God” and his “son” Jesus…. No, wait…. What was that thing Jesus said about prayer and where it should be exercised?  I’ll have to go now and look that up.

Linda Allewalt lives in Shelbyville