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Friday, March 26, 2004  

Stop the invocation! Out with the bastard!  I attended a luncheon meeting yesterday with a spectrum of business leaders from the Mohawk Valley, and including Utica's mayor and our area's elected officials. The food was good, the presentations were interesting, but for me it was totally marred by THE INVOCATION, delivered with some solemnity by the Reverend so-and-so. I have a concern about this, or perhaps I am about to rant. Here's how this one was conducted. There were some introductions and then the Reverend was called to the podium to deliver THE INVOCATION and he spoke thus:

"Dear Holy God, we ask you to bless this meeting and to bless the blah blah and the blah blah. Blah, blah, we ask this is the name of all who have gone before. Amen."

Now, really, I ask you—what the hell was that? But wait, here's how it went at the conclusion of the luncheon. The Reverend was called back to the podium and thus again he spoke:

"Holy Father, thank you for blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, we ask this in the name of all that is holy. Amen."

I've heard this kind of thing many times before—this twisted abomination masquerading as prayer—but this one seemed too much for me, especially in full view of the past year's parade of the Ten Commandments people, the prayer-in-schools-will-solve-all-problems people, and Wednesday's can't-pray-this-pledge case before the Supreme Court. I think the invocation must go; I think we ought to ban the bastard from public meetings altogether. A moment of silence would be a good replacement: no one has to pretend anything at all.

I don't know that we can lay this at the feet of Benjamin Franklin, but he sure helped to popularize the invocation as a proper ceremony for public business. In 1787, Franklin suggested to the Constitutional Convention that the august body pray every day before conducting business and have the city's clergy officiate. Hence the hiring of chaplains for the House and Senate, and so Congress opens each day with a prayer. What Franklin said (in part) was:

"I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live the more convinced I am that God governs in the affairs of men. If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We are told, sir in the sacred writings, that 'except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without His aid we shall succeed in our political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests, our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a byword to future ages. I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberations be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate." [Source: Five Sermons by H.B. Whipple.]

As a consequence, though, we have ended up with something to offend everyone. And we are tricked into it by stealth. As a Christian, I am tricked into thinking that I am participating in corporate prayer to our Lord, praying in the name of Jesus Christ, only to find that there's been a bait-and-switch: I have instead been praying in the name of "All who have gone before" or "All that is holy" or "In His holy name" or "in Your holy name," etc., etc. The Jew gets tricked, and the Muslim gets tricked, and everyone else who has been melted in the melting pot called America, if not tricked, is offended—offended perhaps because they have been called to do something they really don't feel comfortable doing. So no one in fact gets what we want from this corporate prayer, because it's a surrogate, a simlulation perhaps, and not a very good one at that. It's become like a vestige of something from Robert's Rules of Order and no one knows how to stop doing it. It has become a perfunctory feel-good performance, not unlike innocent talk about angels, heaven, fairies, and leprechauns. Let us bow our heads. Perhaps in silence, like the silence of assembled Friends, we can speak freely and sincerely with God—and with no other.

Dear Heavenly Father, we come to you in prayer in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Please give us discipline to speak the truth to those who do not share our faith, to be bold witnesses of your presence in our lives, and to hear your voice throughout each of our daily tasks. Help us to find our stronghold in a culture that strives to change us into children of other gods, although we know these do not exist, and to have us speak a language whose happy imprecision beguiles us into a comfortable apostasy. Always light our way, dear God, so we don't have to ask you to rescue us again from the tarpits of this modern culture. Amen.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 1:02 AM |

Tuesday, March 23, 2004  

Pledge or prayer?  Minor children in public schools in the US should not be led in recitations of a pledge that invokes a religion. I agree with this, so I guess I am also not out of step with the atheist Michael Newdow's legal drive to have the words "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance—although surely not for the same reasons as his. Here are the obvious choices:

  1. "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

  2. "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

The first is the National Flag Conference's 1923 rendition of Francis Bellamy's 1892 flag salute; the second is the 1954 version after Congress added "under God" to the pledge. The first is a patriotic oath; the second makes it both a patriotic oath and a public prayer.

Tomorrow Newdow gets his chance to argue the case before the US Supreme Court. He had already single-handedly won a decision in the San Francisco-based US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which agreed that his First Amendment rights were violated when his second-grade daughter was required to witness what amounted to a religious ritual. He had brought the case against California's Elk Grove Unified School District, which appealed the appellate court ruling, hence landing the issue before the Supreme Court.

Newdow was given special permission to argue the case before the court, despite his unusual credentials: He's an emergency room physician, a lawyer, an atheist, an ordained minister in the we'll-even-ordain-your-dog Universal Life Church, and a minister in his own made-up religion—the First Amendmist Church of True Science (FACTS), which he created in 1998, according to Restore our Pledge of Allegiance, his Internet site devoted to these issues. He now refers to himself as "the Rev. Dr. Newdow" (although he also calls himself just an "average guy"). Do you find in this at least one reason why even American patriots ought not to want any religion pledged with the civic oath?

Quakers aren't embroiled in the issue at all because we don't approve of the pledge in the first place. We actively discourage it as a practice for Christians, as competition for the allegiance we owe only to God.

As it stands, though, Newdow first has to show the court that he still has a stake in the case's outcome. When he originally filed the suit, he had joint custody of his daughter, who is now 9 years old. He and the girl's mother, Sandra Bannning, were never married (their daughter was born out of wedlock, he says, after Banning "raped" him on a camping trip). He lost custody and then got it back, but the mother, a Christian, convinced a California state judge that their daughter ought to be removed as a party to the pledge case. So Newdow first has to convince the US Supreme Court that he has standing on the issue. If not, the court won't have to deliver any ruling at all.

[See Newsweek, March 29 issue; see also Friends and the Flag.]

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 4:57 PM |
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