Friday, May 16, 2014

Let us pray, or not

Posted By on Fri, May 16, 2014 at 4:00 PM

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Knocking out yet another newspaper story on the school prayer issue a number of years ago, I interviewed a rabbi who recounted his anguish as a child being left behind alone in a public school classroom while his peers skipped off to Bible lessons.

This was prior to the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing institutionally organized prayer in tax-supported schools, an event still known by many Americans as the banishment of Almighty God Himself to the wilderness by a mere mortal. (A ripe occasion for that now-familiar joke, that prayer will never be gone from the schools as long as they have math tests.)

Yes, assuming God is, then God is wherever God chooses to be. Invoking the Higher Power in formal ways speaks to the relationships of humans, not to the divine, but to one another.

In that regard, memory serves up regret for me.

Regret that the tyranny of the majority is alive and well and indeed rejuvenated after all these decades. And regret that my interviewing back in the day stopped with members of the non-Christian minority.

The majority - and there are many therein who agree with me - are the natural leaders of secularism in government in a society supposedly founded on freedom of religion and not domination by anyone's religion.

It is the Protestants - and today, the once-second-class Catholics - who should be standing up for pluralism and rejecting reactionary court rulings and legislation that affirm old pecking orders and incite archaic prejudices.

It is the individual, it is the child suffering needlessly and the citizen left in the cold, to whom the larger society must bend if it is to live its highest ideals, the rabbi reminded me. And that's precisely why the high court ruling in the Greece, N.Y., case, and the acclamation for it from so many so-called conservatives, grieve me so.

(Naturally, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller's office filed an amicus brief on behalf of allowing sectarian prayer in government settings. A federal judge rejected that practice by our legislature back in 2005, but an appeals court ruled the plaintiffs - mainly liberal religious leaders - had no standing to sue. So the lawmakers pray when they're in session - as do many of us, when they're in session.)

Except for its three Jewish members and one of its two liberal Catholics, the high court was pretty much fine with whatever discomfort, and whatever ramifications, sprang from the town council's virtually entirely Christian invocations. Defenders of this endorsement of state religion have dismissed objectors as thin-skinned troublemakers who need to practice the "tolerance" they preach. This twisting of tolerance, this bizarre prostitution of the virtues of openness and sacrifice into acquiescence to the whims of power, is a sign of our times, and an apocalyptic one if you ask me.

The O'Hare and Greece matters are not identical. But permit this non-lawyer a broad inference. The court majority in each case represented society's majority. The difference is, the societal majority in the prior case was not melting away and threatened. That left room for magnanimity, a luxury for which the Roberts court has no time.

"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."

That's Jesus, via Matthew 6:5-6. It's the precedent that belongs to the guys in charge. Why don't they use it? Or is it the earthly reward in full they're after?

Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, a contributor to The Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of "Indiana Out Loud."

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