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Friday, June 28, 2013
As long as local government bodies remain unable to resolve the question of whether they should include religious ceremonies or practices in their official proceedings, the matter will continue to divert them from their responsibility to conduct public business.
The religious practice in question is prayer, “a reverent petition made to God or another deity.”
The dictionary says prayer is an act performed as a “communication with God.” Under any straightforward use of language, people communally participating in the act of praying must be described as being engaged in a religious practice.
When a government body conducts or sponsors prayer in its proceedings, officials are conducting or sponsoring a religious practice or ceremony.
This is government prayer and government religion.
Leaving aside the question of why any Americans would wish to revive the oppressive practices that prompted many original settlers to flee England for the U.S., let us consider the arguments made by advocates of government prayer.
One argument made for inclusion of prayer in government proceedings, or, in short, government prayer, simply appeals to precedent or tradition. But tradition is not justification. Slavery in the U.S., for example, was traditional at one time.
A second argument for government prayer holds that Christianity is our country’s national religion because it was founded on Christian principles by Christians. This argument requires the assumption that the phrase in the First Amendment of the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” should be understood as intended to apply only to religions other than Christianity. The argument presumes that the founders saw no need to state the exception in writing.
This argument is faulty in that it contradicts the amendment, specifically by asserting an exception to the phrase “Congress shall make no laws.” Contradicting a statement does not qualify as interpretation.
The founders were of various religious persuasions, Christian and non-Christian. They were in agreement on establishing a government based upon the principles of justice and democracy. Their individual religious views do not preempt what they wrote in the Constitution.
The period in which the Constitution was created was one of intellectual vitality known as the American Enlightenment, a time when the discoveries and developments of the 17th century scientific revolution, including those of Kepler, Galileo, Newton and others, were being increasingly applied in every field.
In religious thought, there was a resurgence of interest in naturalistic views such as deism (belief in a creator but not as a supernatural being who interacts with humankind) and pantheism (belief that God and the universe are the same). Among the founders, as various historians report, those following either deism (or their own variety of it), or pantheism include Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and George Washington.
These leaders, along with their colleagues of whatever religious persuasion, were mostly very private about their religious views. Jefferson, a great admirer of the moral teachings of Jesus, compiled, for his own study, a version of the New Testament that included only direct reports of Jesus’ teachings and left out all supernatural content and any writings composed at later times.
(This is published as “The Jefferson Bible” and bears Jefferson’s title as a subtitle: “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”)
A third argument heard for government prayer claims that a properly composed prayer, specified as one that favors no particular religion, could be legitimately incorporated into official public proceedings. This argument seeks to address government favoritism toward any religion, but no prayer could satisfy all religions, since some of them do not recognize a deity. Secondly, it is faulted by accepting government religious ceremonies or rituals.
It is time we all understand that it is only by prohibiting our government from prescribing or supporting any religious position that our Constitution secures our freedom to hold our own religious views.
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