uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Religious Right To NYC: You'll Pray Whether You Want To Or Not!

The latest ginned-up controversy among the religious right concerns the 9/11 memorial service for the 10-year anniversary. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has opted not to have open prayers led by clergy because of the staggering number of different faiths that would need to be accommodated, so six moments of silence will instead be offered for personal reflection and quiet prayer.

Of course, quiet is something the religious right decidedly is not. If ever there were those who resemble the hypocrites of Matthew 6:5 ("And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others"), these guys are it. To them, religious freedom is not the right of each person to pray -- or not -- in the manner according to their conscience, but rather forced participation in prayer as led by the government. For people who continually gripe about the government, they sure want the government to exercise their religion for them --  a lot.

Bloomberg's decision makes sense, for one key reason. His spokesperson, Evelyn Erskine, noted that, "Rather than have disagreements over which religious leaders participate, we would like to keep the focus of our commemoration ceremony on the family members of those who died."

Disagreements indeed. Last week, I was listening to a radio program hosted by Jordan Sekulow (I don't know why), and his listeners and guests were frothing over Bloomberg's decision. Repeatedly, they said they just wanted clergy from "different faith groups" to give a prayer. But despite the fact that numerous Muslims died in the 9/11 tragedy, do we really think they would stand for a Muslim Imam to give a prayer? Indeed, while urging listeners to sign a petition to support prayer at the service, the hosts, with no hint of irony whatsoever, mentioned their other petition drive opposing a mosque blocks away from the World Trade Center site. Clearly, "different faith groups" probably means an evangelical minister and perhaps a Catholic priest.

Bloomberg's decision is correct. Not everyone -- not even most Christians -- approaches prayer the same way. Even to fully represent the breadth of Christian tradition in the United States (and New York City specifically), there would have to be at minimum four representative clergy (one from among conservative, evangelical protestants, one from ecumenical, mainline protestants, a Roman Catholic priest or bishop, and someone from the Orthodox tradition), and of course, that papers over some major divisions within those four groups. Then of course, there are several strands of Islam in the U.S. (African-American, Arab-American, Sufis and others), several forms of Judaism (Reform, Orthodox, even more orthodox Hasidic), and we haven't even left the Abrahamic, monotheistic religions yet!

And of course, there are increasing numbers of nonbelievers, including I'm sure at least a few 9/11 families. So prayer at such a multicultural service is problematic, because it means so many different things.

Nevetheless, Bloomberg's decision has fed right-wing Christians' perennial sense of persecution (strangely and dissonantly held at the same time as their belief that they represent the majority of Americans). So of course, we have Richard Land, who heads up the Southern Baptist Convention, suggesting of clergy: "Why are they being banned from the 10th anniversary? The only answer pure and simple is anti-religious prejudice." Not really, there are a host of other answers, if one wants to be thoughtful about it. And of course, clergy aren't "banned" -- that's just false witness. They can attend the service like anyone else.

But yet again, the religious right mistakes not being in control with being persecuted and "banned."

If they want to pray about the country and the victims of 9/11, they can do so in their own churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples like everyone else. Or they can do what many of the rest of us do, and as Jesus himself suggested in Matthew 6:6: "Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret."

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