Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Supreme Court on Christian-Specific "Ceremonial Prayer" in the Public Square: My Take

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on religion-specific (i.e., Christian-specific) prayer at public meetings in the U.S., by way of Eyder Peralta at NPR:

Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be under­ stood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an uncon­stitutional establishment of religion.

Several things interest me in Justice Kennedy's opinion statement above, in yesterday's Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of public officials to engage in Christian-specific prayer as they open public meetings:

1. If prayer is "ceremonial," it's not really prayer at all, is it? At least, it seems to me that, as he instructs those who follow him in how to pray, Jesus quite clearly rejects all ceremonial definitions of what prayer is about as having little to do with what authentic prayer is really about (cf. Matthew 6).

2. And so why are various Christian groups celebrating a Supreme Court decision that, in upholding the right of Christians to dominate as people "pray" in public meetings, actually militates against the very definition of prayer that Jesus himself establishes for those who want to walk in his footsteps? 

3. Since prayer is by definition never ceremonial, Justice Kennedy is correct in his conclusion that the Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway et al. is "not an unconstitutional establishment of religion."

4. What that conclusion overlooks, though, is that the Supreme Court ruling is a very clear establishment of pseudo-religion, of "ceremonial" religion — in short, of American civic religion — as the default definition of religion in the American public square.

5. The Supreme Court decision is all about defending the hegemony of a group that is becoming a cultural and demographic minority in American culture — conservative white Protestants and conservative Catholics allied with them — in a culture in which their control is now waning. 

6. It's all about keeping alive a kind of civil religion that bows to the longstanding control of conservative white Christians in American culture, even as that control wanes.

7. The Supreme Court ruling sends a very clear signal to all other groups, whether Jews, Muslims, wiccans, Buddhists, free thinkers, atheists, etc., that the terms long imposed on them for living with any comfort in the nation with the soul of a church still obtain: they must bow to the political, cultural, and religious will of conservative white Christians even when that group has become a demographic (and political) minority in the nation.

8. Essentially, this Supreme Court ruling also sends a very clear signal to all of us that the Supreme Court intends to keep upholding the rights and privileges of straight white males in the American cultural context, since, behind the "ceremonial" religion being defended by "Christians" who take heart in yesterday's ruling, is the never-to-be-ignored outsized power and presence of heterosexual white men in all institutions that count in American culture.

9. Money counts for the Supreme Court. Money talks for the supreme justices of the nation with the soul of a church. 

10. And that, in the last analysis, is what yesterday's ruling defending the right of Christian-specific prayer-as-free-speech in the public square is all about.

The graphic is from the Flickr photo stream of Ally Simpson, and is available for use under a Creative Commons license.

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