So it’s okay to say a prayer before a government meeting. This was not news to me. I am not surprised.
First, this is a quick and dirty post about why I’m not a fan of quick and dirty writing. Daniel Burke, religion writer for CNN, declares that today’s US Supreme Court “ruling upsets #Hindus #Jews #atheists, #Buddhists, #AlmostEveryReligiousMinority.” My first reaction to his tweet was, “Not me.” I want to be clear. I want to be clear. It does bother me, but not that much. My lack of irritation is a result of an awareness of context, which I’ll get to. Burke’s tweet is deliberately provocative. The linked article has a completely different headline, and whereas Americans United for Separation of Church and State is quoted and “Groups from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Hindu American Foundation decried Monday’s decision,” these two statements do not warrant the conclusion that there is some mass of non-Christians out there seething and carrying torches and pitchforks.
Second, let’s be clear about something. While I agree with Kagen, when Burke writes “She suggested that the five justices who formed the majority — all of whom are Catholic — don’t understand what it’s like to belong to a minority faith in America,” and that “they are members of the country’s largest church, Roman Catholicism” — that’s just wrong. As to the first point, Catholics are indeed a “minority” religion in this country. Lest we forget, out of forty-four US Presidents, how many have been Catholic? JFK’s speech defending his Catholicism may seem like a long time ago to people with no sense of history; but it wasn’t that long ago. And note that no one’s been able to replicate his results. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church might be big, but this statement that it’s the “largest church” is misleading. It implies that there are more Catholics in this country than other Christians. This is wrong. Very wrong. Christians, as a whole, make up nearly 75% of the population, and only 23% of the population is Catholic. By definition, Catholics are a minority. Glossing over the diversity of approaches to Christianity is part of the problem. It presumes that just because they all fall under the category of “Christian” that they all adhere to some similar set of beliefs or approaches to religion. It essentializes and reduces complexity to sound bites. (Ahem, note that Justice Sotomayor dissented. And she’s Catholic.)
Oh, and by the way, calling attention to the Justice’s religious identities suggests that they are motivated not by their commitment to the US Constitution but by their religious beliefs which reinforces the idea that people are guided not by individual conscious but by group-think. Now, this may be true in the cases of the majority decision today. I have no idea. But, then again, neither do you. Until one of them says something like “They didn’t bring the Koran over on the pilgrim ship. Let’s get real, let’s go back and learn our history,” we don’t know what motivated them apart from what they wrote in today’s decision. Which I haven’t read. Because I haven’t had time. I suspect most of us won’t ever actually read it, but we can’t assume that people are motivated by sinister religious forces without evidence. To assume people are motivated by sinister religious forces without evidence is prejudicial.
Third, why is surprising? Have we forgotten what country we live in? Here. Let me remind you of this:
Here’s the deal. A Hindu chaplain is being heckled by an evangelist Christian. That’s a messed up thing to do, to be sure. But let’s be clear about this. A Hindu chaplain is leading a prayer in front of the US Senate. Why? Because every session of Congress opens with a prayer. This isn’t some little town-hall meeting in the middle of upstate New York no one’s ever heard of. This is the United States Senate.
Also, that line about the Koran I tossed out up there. It came from this guy, an Alabama state judge. It’s an actual quote. From a judge. Who was elected to his seat by citizens of the state of Alabama. It’s maddening.
In this context, is today’s ruling so surprising? Given our country’s history, is it really so out of place?
This does not mean that we should just accept this and let it go. Far from it. I want to be perfectly clear here. I agree with Kagen’s assessment of a hypothetical Muslim speaking before the town hall. I agree that prayer shouldn’t be in public meetings. But I also firmly believe that in order for us to get from here to there, we need to move past reductionist and reactionary commentary that is divorced from larger considerations of culture and history. I recognize that there is an impulse to comment on everything as soon as it happens, that the news cycle feels compelled to throw up stories all over the web or in print as soon as they happen — the “nowness” of news. But the problem with the now is that it often comes as the cost of perspective. We loose sight of the big picture by being focused on the minutia. There is a way to react to current events without loosing sight of the broader scope of history (I hope that this post is evidence of that). And by doing so, we can elevate the discussion from the realm of “group A is pissed off at group B” to the realm of, hey, life’s messy and complicated and some people are hurt by it; let’s come together and make things better so that people stop getting hurt.