Commentary: What do rest of us do during prayer?
In a recent column, I suggested that our nation might be better off if we didn’t spend so much time reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, a ritual that originated from a combination of xenophobia and a desire to sell flags and flagpoles to every school.
I expected some criticism and, certainly, one reader said that I must be an atheist or a homosexual. Or both.
But, surprisingly, 84 percent of the email in the response to the column was sympathetic. A school principal from Indiana said that he was required by state law to lead his school in the Pledge over the intercom every morning for 29 years. He hated the monotonous groupthink.
Many readers expressed resentment at the coercion implicit in a mass of citizens standing to profess their allegiance, and they developed their private methods of resistance. For example, some who don’t believe in God or who don’t think the government should be in the business of endorsing a religious viewpoint admitted to skipping the words “under God.”
An 85-year-old veteran from Missouri expressed his discomfort at the rote repetition of the Pledge, adding that when the text reaches “with liberty and justice for all,” he always adds “who can pay for it.”
Accordingly, the Supreme Court probably shouldn’t assume citizens’ unalloyed support of its ruling last week that the town of Greece, N.Y., had not violated the Constitution by opening its monthly town hall meetings for a decade with a series of sectarian Christian prayers.
The court’s four dependable conservatives and the sometimes swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, all Catholics, relied heavily on the notion that such prayers are merely ceremonial and traditional, dating back at least to the First Continental Congress. Essentially they said, “We’ve always done it this way, so it’s OK to keep doing it.” Of course, slavery dates to those days, as well.
But, in short, the court said that invoking the wisdom and guidance of the Christian deity before legislatures deliberate the welfare of our country doesn’t violate the Constitution. But how well has that worked out, at least lately?
In any case, the liberal justices, three Jews and a Catholic, disagreed. Justice Elena Kagan, writing in dissent, makes a distinction between ceremonial prayers before legislators, who are all more or less on an equal footing, and sectarian Christian prayers delivered in the intimate setting of a town hall meeting, a place where citizens approach officials to petition for considerations and benefits like licenses and zoning variances.
A Jew or Hindu or atheist who isn’t comfortable standing and bowing his head while a minister exhorts the “congregation” about the salvation that can be found only in Jesus might wonder if his demurral undercuts his case before the town council.
Too bad, said the court’s conservatives, winning the case, 5-4. Citizens who don’t like the prayer can pretend to pray, play Candy Crush on their mobile devices, leave the room, or just not show up at all.
But my experience with the Pledge suggests that some citizens, even good Christians, may not be that comfortable with a prayer that the court says is acceptable because it’s merely “ceremonial.”
In fact, some Christians might take more seriously than their ministers do what Jesus said about prayer in one of my favorite largely ignored scriptures, Matthew 6:5-6: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men ... when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Few forces are more imperious than the sanctimonious combination of piety and patriotism. But if you’re outside the American religious mainstream, the court says dismissively, “Deal with it.”
Or you can just leave the room.