A Solemn Ceremonial Prayer

In A God of Infinite Possibility on May 6, 2014 at 4:35 pm

The Supreme Court of the United States has just ruled, on a 5-4 split vote, that sectarian prayer at town hall meetings is allowed because, essentially, it is traditional, it has a ceremonial value and its purpose is to enhance the solemnity of the occasion.
So, I would like, therefor, to ask the following questions.

Where, exactly does the Constitution establish “tradition” as a constitutional standard? This is especially troubling, because nearly all of the justices seemed to agree that the traditional nature of the practice was part of why it was allowed before legislative sessions in a 1983 decision. But tradition isn’t a constitutional argument. Tradition is the argument of those who want to continue to do something they really shouldn’t be doing. And what constitutes a tradition? The long-established, traditional and formal motto on the Great Seal of the United States was “E Pluribus Unum” until it was changed in 1954. If a suggestion were made to return to the original, would tradition now favor “In God We Trust”? Moreover, the tradition argument has been rejected in other instances, such as the argument that state houses in the South should be able to fly the Confederate Battle Flag. And arguments about “traditional” marriage are being routinely rejected by the courts in same-sex marriage suits. Any time I hear someone arguing about tradition in a constitutional issue, I would ask them where in the Constitution they find that.

How does one give a purely “ceremonial” sectarian prayer? This includes at least two separate concerns. First, the definition of prayer is an appeal to a deity. This assumes, does it not, the existence of a deity. Belief in a deity is, also by definition, a defining characteristic of a religion. There was, apparently, some small effort on the part of the Greece, NY, Town Council to solicit prayers from a variety of religious representatives and they even said that they would welcome an atheist who wished to give the prayer; but the overwhelming majority of prayers have been Christian and many have made a point of proclaiming the existence of God and Jesus as defined by Christianity. Now quite apart from the idea that an atheist prayer is something of an oxymoron, how can any prayer be purely ceremonial? Do those clergy, or others, who deliver the prayer recognize that this particular prayer has no religious value in this particular instance? Are there special prayers that are only ceremonial? Do the people praying cross their fingers behind their backs so God will know they’re just kidding this time? Let’s be honest here. No sincere believer ever says a prayer to God only for the ceremonial value it holds.
Let us imagine for a moment, though, that the Town Council in your home town is genuinely interested in having a fully diverse and representative group of people deliver prayers on a rotating basis at the beginning of meetings. They do a thorough outreach to every belief system in the town and secure a Catholic priest, a Baptist, a Methodist, a Congregationalist, an Evangelical Free Bible Congregation, a Rabbi, an Imam, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Baha’i, a Wiccan, a Deist, an Agnostic, and an Atheist. Would the townspeople who might be willing to sit quietly while being led in a prayer asking the blessings of Allah or Shiva, or Goddess, or Baha’u’llah? Would they feel satisfied if the prayer leader specifically invoked Jesus as the one true path, and be able to contain themselves if the prayer specifically denied Jesus’ existence? And if we assume that all are willing to be equally affirmed or offended in their turns, is anything really valuable achieved thereby? Which leads to the next question.

How does any of this contribute to the ”solemnity” of the occasion? Town meetings and legislative sessions are, after all, functions of government. Those chosen to serve as representatives to these bodies are supposed to conduct the business of government. Is this not itself a solemn enough responsibility? What exactly does a prayer add to that? If I am elected to represent a body of citizens who have entrusted me to take care of their business, should I not already be approaching that work in a solemn manner? Am I not most often asked, upon election, to take a solemn oath to that effect? And can we honestly say that that is the purpose in mind when a clergyman gives such a prayer? Does the minister ask only that God make this occasion more solemn? Does any prayer which asks for a special degree of divine grace or blessing really just address the “solemnity” of the moment; or is it doing more than that, asking more than that? Is it, in fact, offering the subtle or not-so-subtle argument that a deity exists and the blessing of the deity is somehow part of and necessary to the work of the government; and is this not a de facto establishment of a religious component to the proceedings?

Might I make a suggestion? If your town is asking that something be done before town meeting to solemnize the occasion in a ceremonial fashion, why not make it a secular ceremony as befits the work at hand. Why not something like this:
As we prepare to commence the work of this Council (legislature, governmental body, etc.) let us all take a moment to individually and personally commit to the solemn and sacred task ahead. May the members of the council, whose duty it is represent the needs, desires and interests of the people they serve, be deliberate, reasonable, fair and sober in their deliberations and their actions. May those gathered here to observe or participate in this meeting as citizens remember that the work of this body is to serve the whole community and accept that there will be times when their personal petitions will not be granted. And may all present be willing to listen, to be respectful of one another, to be civil in their discourse, and to be mindful that the work of governing is a process that transcends the decisions of one day.

I don’t pretend that this is a perfect text. I’m certain that a group of fair-minded citizens could devise something appropriate for their own community. But isn’t this closer to what we should be ceremonially solemnizing at the beginning of a government meeting in a democracy that seeks keep separate the function and responsibilities of churches and the state?

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