Thursday, March 17, 2011

Establishment and State Leg Prayers

Ever read one of those news stories in which everyone is wrong?

I'm pretty sure I'm going to disagree with the Jewish state legislators in Minnesota who are upset about what they consider to be in-your-face Christian prayers in the state senate. But everyone in the story, as far as I can see (and maybe I'm just cranky today, but still...), is misbehaving.

The story, at least as the AP has it, is that this year's guest chaplains have been violating chamber norms by making explicitly Christian prayers, rather than the non-denominational ones that have been the tradition. Or perhaps not the tradition, as the AP story refers to at least one Jewish legislator who seems to have a long-time grievance. So, first of all: I think that aggressively non-inclusive benedictions in contexts that call for inclusive prayers are violations of etiquette; if Republican leaders in the MN state senate are deliberately recruiting clergy who they expect to do that, then they're guilty of an etiquette violation, too.

Second, the quote from the offending clergyman, some clown named Rev. Dennis Campbell, is a beaut of mangled history and condescending garbage:
"There's nobody that loves the Jews any more than the Christians, so that was not meant as an insult or disrespect," Campbell said. "Rather, it was a show of respect to Jesus Christ — just like our founders showed respect to Jesus Christ and the word of God when they built our Constitution."
Yeah. Of course it's disrespect, but not nearly as disrespectful and insulting as this "nobody loves the Jews any more than" crap. Ugh. And, no, the framers were not particularly interested in Jesus when putting together the Constitution, other than to keep any deity far away from their efforts to found a secular republic.

But I have to disagree with the remedy proposed by the Jewish legislators, too -- not based on etiquette, but on Constitutional grounds. Currently, Minnesota apparently "requests" nondenominational prayers, but state senator Terri Boniff and other Jewish (and Democratic) legislators want to change that to make such prayers "required." I think they're wrong. How is requiring not only a prayer, but a specific type of prayer, not establishing a religion?

Granted, the tradition of opening legislative sessions with a prayer is one of those things that's probably on shaky Constitutional ground to begin with, but that most of us, even most strong first amendment types, are okay with ignoring. And as I said, I think that it's only good manners for prayers in this situation to err on the inclusive side. But that should be the decision of individual clergy, not a requirement of the government (and I should add -- if the state legislative leaders are de facto requiring Christian prayers, that's a Constitutional problem also).

As an established church, "Nondenominationalism" is just as offensive to the first amendment as is any other type of religion.

(Don't know that it's relevant here, but regular readers know that I'm a Red Sea pedestrian myself, for what it's worth).


  1. I think you're stretching when you say it's "just as" offensive as any other type of religion. The justification for the 1st amendment, IIRC, was it'd avoid religious civil wars like those in Europe and allow for individuals to follow their own conscience. Nondenom'ism is less of a threat to those things than e.g. the actions of this Rev.

  2. Never would I have possibly suspected that someone named Jonathan Bernstein is part of the Tribe.

  3. As an established church, "Nondenominationalism" is just as offensive to the first amendment as is any other type of religion.

    It may very well be worse, because it non-denominational-ism is not fully inclusive, but is inevitably, and sometimes deliberately, going to exclude while purporting to speak for the entire political community. For example, here is something fairly non-denominational: "We pray to the Creator of all things, that this assembly of the people may be blessed by goodness and wisdom." That seems delightfully bland. Except "creation" invokes a single deity at the beginning of time, which is a problem if you believe that deity is plural (or animist) and that time is eternal.

    Non denominational prayer is a boundless nightmare.

    Compare that with say, an explicitly sectarian prayer with the correct pronoun usage. "I (the minister) pray that this assembly may be guided with the Holy Spirit, with goodness, and wisdom, and be filled with grace for the people of our State"

  4. Your post has nothing to do with non-denominatialism and sectarianism and everything to do with pronoun usage. Given that no preacher starts prayers with the personal pronoun, especially sectarian preachers, it's entirely a red herring.

  5. Red sea pedestrian!? You are so hip.


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