The “Naked Public Square” in Fayetteville, North Carolina

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First page of Constitution of the United States

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A federal judge has banned Christian prayers from the city council meetings in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Only “non-sectarian prayers” will be allowed. This is the latest sortie in the attempt of the United States government to enforce what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus called “The Naked Public Square.” That term refers to the systematic removal of religion (especially Christianity) from public discourse in the United States. Usually proponents of the naked public square refer to Thomas Jefferson’s referring to a “wall of separation” between church and state. Yet the term “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution–the First Amendment only forbids the U. S. Congress from establishing a religion and forbids the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. It does not even forbid a state from having an established church if that individual state so choose. It took the creative reading of meaning into the First Amendment by members of the Supreme Court and by secularist federal judges to force a so-called “religiously neutral stance” on the American people. Religion is relegated to the private sphere.

Yet no one can remain neutral on religion–as William James pointed out in his famous essay, “The Will to Believe,” “neutrality” is de facto a rejection of religion. Religions claim to have implications for the whole of life, public and private. To privatize religion is to destroy an essential part of religion’s identity. A “neutral stance” of the government is, in effect, an endorsement of practical atheism.

There also can be no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer.” A prayer to a deity of any kind reflects a bias toward theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Theravada Buddhists do not believe in God, or else believe that whether a deity exists is not important to ending desire and suffering. Would not a prayer to a deity oppose their teaching? Atheists would not agree with any kind of prayer. A prayer not using the name of Jesus is nonsectarian; it is biased against Christianity and toward the other two great theistic religions. A removal of a prayer from city council meetings would not help, since this would reflect a bias toward (practical) atheism.

A better solution would be to allow ministers from various faiths to present a prayer or devotional at the city council meeting. A Jewish rabbi or a Muslim Imam could pray to God without invoking the name of Jesus. A Theravada Buddhist could present some sayings of the Buddha about ending desire. A Christian could pray in the name of Jesus. An atheist might present a short meditation on the glory of science. Those in the audience who do not agree with the theology behind a particular prayer or devotional or meditation can surely tolerate it–no one is forcing them to give up their religious beliefs. If I am ever asked to pray publicly, I will pray in accordance with my religion, Christianity. I will end my prayer “in Jesus’ name.” To do otherwise would violate my conscience. A Jewish rabbi who leads a prayer should not be required to use the name of Jesus. A Theravada Buddhist need not make a reference to a deity. That is a solution fair to different religious groups that makes more sense than a “nonsectarian prayer.”

 

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I Pray for a Better 2011

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New year - which direction?

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Another year has passed, and the older I get, the faster time seems to pass. I pray that the world will be a better place in 2011 than it was in 2010. As a Christian, I am thrilled by the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa–and African Christians, unlike American Christians, can pay a steep price for their faith. Their dedication in facing persecution, in walking twenty or more miles in the mud to get to church, is a model for all of us to follow.

I pray that there will be fewer wars and that the American people will wake up to the power of what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.”

I pray for the unborn, that God would protect them from the scourge of abortion. I pray for marriage–that it will continue as a permanent union between one man and one woman. I pray for parents to be good fathers and mothers, to be affectionate for their children, to praise them when they do well, and discipline them when they do wrong. I pray that the trend toward physician-assisted suicide and toward active euthanasia will be reversed. I pray that Americans realize that older people have just as much intrinsic value as young people–and they often have more wisdom.

I pray that colleges and universities will recover some of the sanity that they once have. I pray that young people will learn the great classics of literature, philosophy, and religion. I pray that more traditional Christians strive for teaching and research careers in higher education.

I pray that the American people will take more responsibility for their actions and not blame others for all their misfortunes. I pray for greater courtesy between people. I pray that mediating institutions that stand between the person and the state–churches, civic organizations, and clubs–will grow and prosper. I pray that Americans realize that there is a life beyond both big government and big business.

I pray that we all stop and enjoy the beauty of nature, that we realize that environmentalism is not contrary to Christianity, but recognizes the goodness of the earth and the plants and animals God created. I pray for less cruelty toward animals, that people realize that humans are not the only animals with intrinsic value, that even if humans have more value than other animals, that does not imply that animals be mistreated. I pray for more free range animals and fewer factory farms. I pray that people treasure their pets, and I pray that God in His mercy will raise them from the dead when He reconstitutes the world in a perfect form.

I pray for the salvation of all people, recognizing that there is a possibility of eternal damnation–I pray, though, that Hell will be empty. I pray that we will forgive without excusing, mete justice but balance it with mercy when mercy is warranted. I pray that Americans will realize that people are more important than material possessions, that the accumulation of riches alone will never make a person happy. I pray that all people will strive to have virtuous characters, and that God will reach down and touch the most damaged of souls, all those with intractable vices or mental illness, all those who suffer from the sin of narcissism, those who suffer from borderline personality disorder, even those who are psychopaths.

I pray that the New Atheism will show forth its shallowness and not convince people that God does not exist.

I pray for the success of Sam Parnia’s study of Near-Death Experiences, that his findings will suggest that a spiritual realm truly does exist.

I pray for my family, my friends, for every person that they will cooperate with God’s grace to become all they are meant to be. And to the readers of this blog, may God’s richest blessings descend on you in 2011.

To Christopher Hitchens: All the Best

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Christopher Hitchens

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There is a fascinating story and interview at

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/14/christopher-hitchens-cancer-interview

Christopher Hitchens, one of the best known of the “new atheists,” has been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Although I disagree with his position on God’s existence, I wish him the very best in his treatment and I hope he recovers. And yes, I will say a prayer for him as will thousands, perhaps millions, of other believers, and there has even been a “Let’s Pray for Hitchens Day.” Believers in God should take care not to do anything out of mean spiritedness or “I told you so,” but only from genuine concern that Mr. Hitchens will recover from a terrible disease.

In May I lost my best friend to cancer–in her case, breast cancer. She was lucky to have been asymptomatic for most of the six years of the recurrence of the disease she thought she had beaten two years earlier. Yet when things began to wind down, she was in a great deal of pain, and her strong runner’s body bore the weight of the ravages of cancer. I wish this disease on no one. Christians should be wary about any hints of claiming any divine retribution against Mr. Hitchens. He engaged in some habits (smoking and drinking a bit much now and then. for example) that probably had more to do with his condition than any act of the deity. And I would have great difficulties affirming the goodness of a God who would directly inflict this terrible disease on anyone, including anyone who does not believeĀ  in God.

With those caveats, I will pray for Mr. Hitchens and for all people who suffer from the ravages of cancer and other terrible diseases. Of course I hope that Mr. Hitchens changes his mind about God’s existence, but if not, I hope he recovers, even if that means he remains a pain in the … for theists for a long time to come.

Should Christians Pray as Christians?

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Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

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A Baptist pastor, Ron Baity, was told that his services were no longer needed at the North Carolina House of Representatives after he led a prayer in the name of Jesus. This brings up an interesting point about those who scream “intolerance” at Pastor Baity and other Christians who insist praying in the name of Jesus. They are intolerant and offensive themselves. There is no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer.” Prayer by its very nature is bound to a tradition. Traditional Christians are more tolerant than liberal Christians or atheists since they generally do not protest if a Jewish Rabbi does not pray in the name of Jesus. Christians recognize that Jews have a different understanding of the nature of Jesus than Christians, and the vast majority are not offended if a Jew leads a prayer without using Jesus’ name in a public forum. There are Orthodox Jews who understand that if a Christian is praying in the name of Jesus, that Christian is only following his own religious tradition. What is so intolerant about allowing all who lead prayers to pray according to their tradition–this is fair to all religious groups and does not perpetuate the fiction of a “nonsectarian prayer.” It is usually liberal Protestants, liberal Catholics, or liberal Jews, some of whom are de facto atheists, who protest the loudest against Jesus’ name being spoken in prayers. Only people who do not believe in the distinctive claims of their religious tradition could claim that prayers could be nonsectarian.

A friend of mine, The Rev. Ervin Crain, led a prayer about fifteen years ago at the University of Texas at Austin commencement. He finished the prayer in the name of Jesus. When a liberal rabbi protested, The Rev. Crain quite sensibly replied that as a Christian he felt duty bound to pray according to the beliefs of his tradition. He said that if a Jewish rabbi led the prayer, he would not be offended at his not using Jesus’ name, since he realized that the rabbi would pray in accordance with his tradition. Liberals are infected with selective tolerance–they tolerate every expression of religious faith except the traditional Christianity that they hate. They are the truly intolerant ones.