Earlier this week I reported on how the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing a case about sectarian prayers before government meetings. Defenders of various inclusive sectarian models say that it promotes a healthy discourse in which all citizens are able to fully represent themselves. The truth is that when pluralistic-on-paper invocation models are tested, the results are usually far from ideal.
“An atheist lawmaker’s decision to give the daily prayer at the Arizona House of Representatives triggered a do-over from a Christian lawmaker who said the previous day’s prayer didn’t pass muster. Republican Rep. Steve Smith on Wednesday said the prayer offered by Democratic Rep. Juan Mendez of Tempe at the beginning of the previous day’s floor session wasn’t a prayer at all. So he asked other members to join him in a second daily prayer in “repentance,” and about half the 60-member body did so. Both the Arizona House and Senate begin their sessions with a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
“When there’s a time set aside to pray and to pledge, if you are a non-believer, don’t ask for time to pray,” said Smith, of Maricopa. “If you don’t love this nation and want to pledge to it, don’t say I want to lead this body in the pledge, and stand up there and say, ‘you know what, instead of pledging, I love England’ and (sit) down. That’s not a pledge, and that wasn’t a prayer, it’s that simple,” Smith said.”
I’d say that this was an isolated incident, but it isn’t. Time and again, when a non-Christian dares to speak in a space some Christians believe is theirs alone, the result is outrage and protest. What did Rep. Juan Mendez say that was so offensive that it required a Christian do-over the next day?
“This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration, but this is also a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love. Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.’”
Shocking, right? The fact is that any deviation too far from the (theologically conservative) Christian default setting provokes these reactions. We can comfort ourselves by saying this is a symptom of changing demographics, that we are becoming more pluralistic and these are the last gasps of a increasingly reactionary rump, but that’s a cold comfort when such changes happen slowly over the course of generations. The simple fact, the message sent to religious minorities and non-Christians is: it’s different when you do it. That’s true whether you’re talking about prayers in America, or even legally binding Pagan wedding ceremonies in the UK.
“If we can just go to the Scottish example … we have seen in Scotland pagan weddings celebrated, spiritualist weddings celebrated and weddings celebrated by the White Eagle Lodge. I think this is a question that ought to have been properly consulted on with our constituents. I can’t speak for other MPs, but I have had enough problems in my constituency with same-sex marriage. If I go back to the shires of Oxfordshire and tell them that Parliament’s now about to endorse in England pagan marriage they’ll think that we’ll have lost the plot completely. If they think then that Labour is supporting pagan marriage and masonic marriage then they really will think that we’ve lost the plot.”
In a culture that has been dominated by a distinct form of monotheism for hundreds of years, real pluralism is radical. Real pluralism acknowledges the vast imbalances in privilege and power and acts accordingly. If you pretend that power and privilege is not there, you end up with the legal case now heading to the Supreme Court where pluralism-on-paper resulted in an overwhelming affirmation of Christian power.
“The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint. Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter. In the town’s view, the preponderance of Christian clergy was the result of a random selection process. The randomness of the process, however, was limited by the town’s practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town’s borders. The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town. Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief.”
Real change is hard, because it effects real changes. Cosmetic changes are easy, because they ultimately change nothing. You cannot simply declare a space pluralistic and fair and then expect it to be so. If Christians want the public square to be a multi-religious space, it has to come with real concessions, or else it’s simply another tool to enforce the majority’s power, because it’s always different when the “other” does it.