Coming together on public prayer

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 7, 2013

It’s one thing to disagree with the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. But should Rowan residents who disagree with commissioners on the issue of public prayer also hope the county loses its case in court?
After all, we are the county, all 138,000-plus people.
Some of us believe the courts have already ruled clearly on the issue now being brought up by the American Civil Liberties Union and three local plaintiffs. Legislative prayer is part of the American tradition, but when that prayer is exclusively Christian — or Islamic or Buddhist or whatever — it veers toward establishing a state religion.
Others believe any effort to limit prayer violates our freedom of religion.
“The government should stay out of religion,” someone commented. We all agree with that. So who are those five guys leading prayer during the commission meetings?
The government.

Public prayer is not a simple issue. I’d buck, too, if someone told me I could pray to God yet not to Christ. What?
But I am not a public official running a government meeting.
Let’s hope for this, if commissioners stick with their decision to fight the suit: that the judicial process will be speedy and end with a clear ruling that brings about the best for all.
Freedom. Respect. Understanding.
And our county’s reputation intact.

That last item seemed in danger last week as the world learned about a resolution Rowan’s state representatives, Carl Ford and Harry Warren, filed in Raleigh. They only intended to make a symbolic show of support for commissioners’ right to pray freely at meetings, Ford and Warren say. But the broadly written resolution read like an attempt to establish a state religion, defy the U.S. Constitution and all but revive the Civil War.
The now-infamous and thankfully defunct Rowan County Defense of Religion Act was penned by a Kings Mountain city councilman ill-versed in Constitutional law, apparently. Ford and Warren ran with it — right into a national buzzsaw. The resolution said the U.S. Constitution and federal courts held no sway in North Carolina, an assertion so absurd that it drew attention from as far away as the Huffington Post and the BBC.
That was not the symbolic gesture Ford and Warren were going for.
You have to wonder if they even read the resolution. It was dead on arrival in committee and Warren has apologized for causing embarrassment. Ford has been quiet.
Here’s another hope: that a lot more thought went into other bills Warren and Ford have filed. Warren is cosponsoring about 100 bills so far — including the voter ID bill featured on today’s front page — and Ford has signed onto more than 120 as cosponsor.

I blame the Internet. Well, not exactly. But we naturally gravitate toward like-minded people, and now it’s possible to choose news and commentary sources that reflect only our own point of view.
In her book about the media, “The Influencing Machine,” Brooke Gladstone says like-minded people can insulate themselves in virtual echo chambers.
“Cut off from dissenters, the chambers fill with an unjustified sense of certainty,” she says.
(Sponsor the Defense of Religion! Why yes, by God.)
Studies show that “people who talk only to like-minded others grow more extreme. They marginalize the moderates and demonize dissenters.”
Sound familiar?

Liberals accuse conservatives of doing that, not seeing the speck in their own eye — that is, their own echo chamber and isolation.
There’s plenty of self-righteousness to go around.
Which is what drew me to this book recently: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt.
If you hope to figure out why the other guys are so wrong, watch out. You could wind up looking in a mirror.
“Morality binds and blinds,” Haidt says. “This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong.”
See yourself yet?

“We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.”
He’s referring to “objects” like equality, self-reliance, tolerance, loyalty. The list goes on.
What I’m getting around to is this: On the issue of public prayer, people on both sides feel certain that truth and precedent are on their side.
We should recognize that in ourselves, respect it in others and not let public prayer polarize the people of Rowan County.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.