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Monday, April 26, 2010

Church, State and Prayer

The last issue I even blogged on with the President in detail was Obama meeting with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who has taken time off from his travels. In more recent news, President Obama met with church icon (get it?) Billy Graham. I’m amazed Graham’s still alive, but I suppose he is the lesser of two evils with Pat Robertson still alive. He and President Obama, along with his son, the more controversial Franklin Graham, spoke on various issues of faith in the presidency. Billy Graham has been well known for being the so called “pastor to the presidents”, having counseled at least 12 other presidents in his lifetime, which is a monumental achievement. However little meaning I may find in the message he preaches, I do admire his devotion to the passion he found in his life. The two discussed also their love of golf (what man in his 50s and above doesn’t love golf a bit?) and Chicago (Obama’s alma mater and a place where Billy Graham started some radio broadcasting). Graham Sr. gave the president two bibles, after which the two men prayed for each other and left for other important ventures. Graham’s son, Franklin, had been recently uninvited to speak at the Pentagon for the upcoming National Day of Prayer (which I’ll talk a little more about in relation to the second article by Jon Meacham), because he was a tad insensitive to Muslim issues. He spoke on CNN that true Islam is apparently all the extreme use of shariah law, including beating your wife because you suspect her of adultery. He tried to save his hide from the rebound of the insult to more moderate Muslims, but evidently it didn’t work in his favor, since he was basically denied his “commission”. He said he had Muslim friends, but that he didn’t like how Islam was practiced in the predominately Muslim world in the Middle East as he has been there in the past.

Of course, this isn’t the only controversy or issue of interest; Obama praying with Billy Graham and son is more something people would find positive things from. The striking down of the National Day of Prayer as unconstitutional, however, has been met with opposition by Obama’s administration. To advertise an acquaintance’s blog I occasionally read ( he argues that the 1st Amendment does not extend to government involvement with religious practices, prayer being the one that was argued by Barbara Crabb to be something the government should not have a say on. While I respectfully disagree, I can see how the issue might be of importance as he is a strong Christian believer, while I am not anything Christian except in lineage of sorts (raised Christian that is). The alleged wording on the National Day of Prayer is a suggestion, a voluntary choice. But even if this is so and prayer is not being forced, which according to Mr. Luna would violate the separation of church and state in terms of establishment, there is a compelling argument that church and state’s separation should extend to the explicitly religious behaviors, including prayer. While giving a moment of silence is one thing, giving an open moment of prayer does seem to suggest more explicitly the advocacy of pleading to a personal deity to answer some humble request. If the government, according to the establishment clause, should pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, one can interpret it to extend to passing a law that says that people “may pray to God”. There is a border where religion is granted its freedom to practice (in any way that does not violate other Constitutional standards of free speech and religious practice by association, such as libel/slander and the like) and the state does not overstep its bounds to legislate laws about religious practice in any way, shape or form or restrict religious practice beyond reason. Suggesting that the government have a say about the religious practice of prayer does appear to cross the border we give religion as an individual and communal practice of believers.

Jon Meacham’s argument in particular, leans on the religious call for prudence in regards to the government and its sanction of religion. Long before Thomas Jefferson, there were others (Puritan thinkers of some stripe or another) that argued that religion and state should stay separate because they are in decidedly different spheres. Religion has its own structure of authority and loyalty to God, while the state has its own authority structure and loyalties to the people it governs. It is similar to Jesus’ call in Matthew 22:21, to “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. In this way, I am not advocating, nor is Jon Meacham, a complete isolation of the two. State officials cannot help in their rendering of their government duties to sometimes reflect on their regard to the divine in some form or fashion. Barack Obama recently prayed for the 29 victims of the mining disaster in West Virginia, the Justices perform their duties according to particular religious beliefs, Antonin Scalia coming to mind, and even the Supreme Court opens with a prayer (which may be rendered by many different chaplains of different faiths, such as Hindus, at least once to my memory). The involvement of religion in the lives of representatives should not be denied or suppressed, but the role of religion in their lives should be restricted within reason to the extent that they neither legislate laws supporting any explicitly religious practice, nor limit the legitimate practice of religion in the private lives of the citizens of the country. If anything, this ruling may go either way, but Jon Meacham’s concluding dilemma raises a good consideration of at least two outcomes of the appeal, “the choice between a government-sanctioned religious moment and the perpetuation of a culture in which religion can take its own stand, free from the corruptions of the world”. So religion can either be independent and yet related to federal issues, in the sense of a civil religious culture, or it can be intertwined with government, leaving a gap open to potential theocratic justifications. Which would you choose? Until next time, Namaste and Aloha.

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