On prayer and the establishment of religion

  • Posted: Sunday, March 24, 2013 12:05 a.m.
The Rev. P. Kendal Mobley
The Rev. P. Kendal Mobley

First of all, with Christians through the ages I confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. My encounter with Christ has been life-changing. I pray and study the Bible daily. For 25 years, I’ve been a church planter, pastor and teacher of Christianity.

Second, I acknowledge that the sectarian prayers of the Rowan county commissioners constitute a comparatively mild example of governmental establishment of religion. Historically, my Baptist ancestors were subjected to much worse by fellow Christians who possessed governmental authority. Obadiah Holmes was whipped nearly to death in Massachusetts in 1651 for preaching Baptist doctrine in a private residence.

In 18th-century Virginia, marriage ceremonies conducted by Baptist ministers were not legally recognized, and Baptists were jailed, whipped and otherwise abused for their beliefs. Consequently, Baptists supported the nominal Episcopalian James Madison, who did not often speak openly of his own faith but is probably best understood as a Deist, and the freethinking Thomas Jefferson, who took a razor to the Bible to remove the parts that he regarded as contrary to reason. Despite Jefferson’s apostasy, the eminent Baptist leader John Leland once called him “the greatest man in America.”

Baptists supported Madison and Jefferson because they advocated religious freedom for all, not toleration for a few. Fortunately for all of us, the views of Leland, Jefferson, and Madison have increasingly prevailed in the ever more diverse religious milieu of the United States. Around the world today, governmental intolerance against religious minorities remains all too common.

Mild as it is, the issue at the heart of the controversy over prayer at meetings of the County Commission is the establishment of religion. The First Amendment to the Constitution, in its establishment and free exercise clauses, strikes a delicate balance: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The ideal, so difficult to achieve and maintain, is a free marketplace of religious opinion into which government is forbidden to trespass. Government’s posture ought to be one of absolute neutrality regarding religion. Neither religion in general, nor the absence of religion, nor any particular religious system ought to be privileged, penalized or proscribed. The government must be secular in the original sense of the word — that is, limited in its concern and authority to that which is temporal; related to the present world.

Likewise, agents of the government must, in the exercise of their authority, maintain neutrality regarding religion. As private citizens, they have the right to give money to any religious institution they please, but as agents of government, they cannot use public funds to support religious causes. Similarly, when they act as private citizens, they have every right to pray and express their religious views, but when they speak and act as agents of the government, they must maintain neutrality for the sake of justice.

Other religious settlements have been attempted and found wanting. For example, in the wake of the Lutheran break with Rome, a religious war broke out among the German states. The Peace of Augsburg (1555), which ended the military conflict, laid down a principle of religious toleration, “Cuius regio, eius religio,” which translates into English as “whose region, his religion.” The ruler chose which religion or religions would be tolerated, and which would not.

The attitude of mere toleration persists — today, in Rowan County — in those who believe that the religious majority have the right to impose their prayers on others, and that it is a privilege of elective office to use county government for that purpose. Such reasoning betrays a failure to recognize religious freedom as a human right, to appreciate the significance of liberty of conscience, and to uphold common civility.

Religious freedom is a human right, not a privilege granted by the majority. No referendum, regardless of the margin of approval, could ever legitimately rob a person of religious freedom. Indeed, the reason for ratifying the Bill of Rights as a part of the Constitution was to protect the rights of the individual against the will of the majority. Religious freedom is a human right because religion that is coerced is dehumanizing and meaningless.

To claim that one should just stand by quietly, while agents of the government use public office to impose sectarian prayers or other religious opinions, is to deny liberty of conscience. It is intolerable when a government denies a private citizen the right to pray, but a government-imposed prayer is equally intolerable. As advocates of religious liberty have affirmed for centuries, the demands of civic duty cannot extend to one’s conscience. In the New Testament, Jesus made this distinction when he said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In our civic duties, we answer to “Caesar,” but in matters of conscience, we answer to God alone. It is not the business of government or its agents to judge, regulate, promote, or defend religion. The very attempt inevitably violates liberty of conscience.

Finally, a basic commitment to civility ought to prevent agents of government from giving unnecessary offense to the citizens they serve. If one is to participate fully in the processes of county government, one must attend the public meetings of the County Commission. In an increasingly diverse society like ours, some citizens will find sectarian prayers offensive, and all people of goodwill must defend religious minorities against any violation of their religious liberties.

No reasonable person would object to our commissioners engaging in personal prayer. The rub lies in the insistence of some that their prayers must be both government-sponsored and sectarian. A moment of silence would provide an opportunity for anyone who wished to pray, and it would protect the freedom of everyone.

Government sponsorship or endorsement of sectarian prayer is inevitably a form of religious coercion because the authority of government rests on coercive power. On the other hand, according to the New Testament, the Christian faith depends exclusively on “soft” power – sacrificial love, the bonds of community, reasoned persuasion, spiritual conviction, or an example of moral purity and excellence. The New Testament urges believers to pray for those in authority, but it never endorses government-sponsored prayer. Jesus taught his followers to pray privately rather than publicly, and to do to others what we would have them do to us. When agents of government impose the name of Christ on others as a condition of participation in the processes of government, they transgress not only the spirit and letter of the First Amendment but the Golden Rule. Such a policy is unloving, uncivil, and unwise.

The Rev. Kendal P. Mobley, Th.D., is Visiting Professor of Church and Society at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, but on this issue he speaks only for himself.

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