SCOTUS Endorses Government Prayer (updated)

The Supreme Court decision regarding the prayer practices of the town of Greece, New York is bad news for anyone who does not want to experience Christian prayers at government functions.

The real problem with this decision is that its overall philosophy moves further away from an endorsement test – the idea that the government should not endorse a specific religion – and towards a coercion test instead, verging on the idea that government can endorse religion without coercing citizens to follow that religion. Moreover, a couple justices took the opportunity to say they would like to see coercion defined even more narrowly, meaning that government would have an even wider scope to push religion. See more specific discussion at SCOTUSblog.

It is not an accident that justices who have experienced the least disadvantage in their lives tend to see coercion narrowly and don’t have a problem with endorsement, while those who have wider life experiences are more likely to think that endorsement slides into coercion and that both are a bad thing. People in the majority – in this case the religious majority – have not been subject to the myriad slings and arrows of everyday life that make one more thing, like your government expecting you to have the strength to withstand public, officially sanctioned disparagement, just too much to bear.

Specifically, this decision is a bad thing for Wiccans because to be realistic, in my lifetime we will not be on an equal footing with Christians, and this decision is all about accommodating the majority rather than protecting the minority. In the meantime, we run a serious risk of being used as cover – call it the “I Have a Wiccan Friend” defense. In other words, if a town council has to get a Wiccan one week out of the year (and a Jew once and a Buddhist once) so that they can have their exclusionary prayers to Jesus the other 49 weeks, they’ll do it, and those 49 weeks will do way more to reinforce the Christian sense of hegemony (we own this town – look at the meetings!) than that one week of pretend tolerance will.

Make no mistake, that one-week-a-year, or any similar plan, is tolerance, not inclusion. I have argued before and will argue again that there is no such thing as a fully inclusive prayer that covers all citizens, so the only truly inclusive option is no prayer at all.

Moreover, it looks to me at first glance like this decision’s details gave small governments a long list of ways to tailor their tolerance so that it’s not too burdensome on the Christian majority. It doesn’t seem like there’s any real burden for the government to be inclusive by any standard, for example. Saying that local governments may be run “informally” is a loophole big enough to drive the “Oh, it’s an accident that we forgot to invite any rabbis” truck right through.

EDITED: Originally, my last paragraph read:

Personally, I will continue to advocate for less appearance of government endorsing religion for any religion, mine included. I would not give an opening prayer at a government meeting even if I was specifically invited to do so. Others may make different decisions depending on circumstances, but please think carefully before participating in this misguided encroachment of government-sponsored religion.


I am hearing some good arguments about why we should engage in exactly the kind of prayer that I firmly believe on fundamental principles should not be happening. I am not particularly swayed by the argument from equal misery: If they’re going to make us miserable, I am not convinced that we should make them miserable too. I am much more convinced by the argument that trying to participate in public prayer and being turned away could be – in the long term, on the order of decades – the foundation of a new case to get this crap overturned.

In the meantime and the near term, there is always the possibility that a sectarian Wiccan or Hellenistic or Druid prayer can be so repulsive to a Christian majority that the Christian majority decides not to hold the public prayers any longer. That would be similar to the attempt to install a Satanist monument in Oklahoma to “balance” the Ten Commandments monument.

I am not yet convinced that the potential harm done to others in the meantime is worth it, especially because of the risk of being used for “cover” in the way I describe above. I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

I don’t know how to balance the kind of activism for equal recognition of Wicca and Paganisms that I see going on in many places (military, prisons) with using Wicca as a weapon to get religion removed. How do I take action and try to communicate the subtext “Well, you could just not allow prayers here,” in one context, and in another context take an almost identical action with the subtext, “No, really, take me seriously, Wiccan prisoners have a real need for ministry?” How do we avoid having the kind of wiggle-arounds that are going to be used in prayer-giving contexts (oh, we’ll have everyone in on a rotation, that’ll work) applied to other contexts to marginalize us even further?

As I said, I’m willing to hear further arguments. I’m deeply torn about this matter and expect to spend some time contemplating while I’m away at Fertile Ground Gathering this weekend. That means I won’t be here to moderate comments or respond. We’ve got time. Let’s ground and center and think and talk together before we act.

The myth of nonsectarianism

Sometimes someone has to say that the emperor has no clothes. Here goes:

There is no such thing as nonsectarian prayer.

“Nonsectarian” is a polite euphemism for “generically Christian,” and more specifically “generically Protestant, but probably acceptable to nearly all followers of Abrahamic religions.” That’s it; that’s all it means. It’s not an acceptable alternative to “sectarian” prayer because it somehow magically includes everyone. That alternative doesn’t exist.

It’s not possible to give a prayer that doesn’t exclude someone.

The act of praying is exclusionary: most atheists don’t pray.

The mode of praying is exclusionary: some people pray by putting on specific garments; some pray by dancing; some pray by kneeling; some pray by making burnt offerings; some pray by creating artworks; and on and on. Simply standing or sitting with bowed head and folded hands while someone says words is a specific kind of prayer that is primarily practiced by a specific type of religion.

It doesn’t matter that that group is broad and varied. It doesn’t matter that that group is hegemonic in this country. It’s a specific act associated with a specific religion, and if that’s not the definition of sectarian, I don’t know what is.

As for content, most prayers begin by stating who or what they are addressing. Some don’t; they remain in a prayer equivalent of passive voice by saying “We pray that…. and for ….” Theologically, this is a cop-out. It’s the equivalent of those ads you get from the local cable company that read “To our neighbor at…” It’s like playing Pin the Prayer on the Deity: stand with your eyes closed and pray in as vague a fashion as possible, desperately hoping that your words and intent will bump into a kindly power as they wing their way blindly into the universe.

Worse yet, it’s a cop-out that doesn’t fool anybody. At most, it allows people to substitute their own mental image of whomever or whatever they want to address their prayer to. But recognizing that prayer may be directed to many different sources which can’t be condensed into a unified thing is undermining the very idea of a universal prayer. It makes the exercise at best a simulacrum of unity – at the price of already having excluded people – and at worst a farce.

When a recipient is addressed, that by definition excludes people. Not everyone prays to the same deity, and plenty of people don’t pray to someone or something that can be addressed as simply “God” or “Lord.”

The inimitable Byron Ballard wrote about her experience with this in a different setting:

When that wonderful interfaith group came together on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center/Pentagon horrors, we tried our best to come up with a prayer that everyone was comfortable hearing and saying.

And we couldn’t do it.  Well-meaning and well-mannered as we all were, there simply wasn’t a way of creating a generic prayer.

Byron is right. That group didn’t fail because they didn’t try hard enough, they failed because it’s impossible. The opposite of sectarian isn’t “nonsectarian,” it’s secular.

The only places where the myth of nonsectarianism can have credence are places where there’s enough similarity of religious belief and practice to render something like “God” meaningful. In intra-Christian work, nonsectarian prayer can exist; the Catholic priest and the Lutheran and Baptist pastors all agree not to to pray to Mary, not to say “sola scriptura,” and not to say “accept Jesus into your hearts right now.” That’s nonsectarian with respect to the subdivisions of Christianity. It’s still sectarian because it’s specific to the Christian sect.

If you’re in a group that is Christian by definition, go right ahead with nonsectarian Christian prayer. But once you start talking about – or praying in – public situations, open to all, then by definition in this country you are not talking about a wholly Christian population.

It’s true that since the Abrahamic religions are all basically monotheistic faiths that primarily address the divine in masculine terms, it is linguistically possible to write prayers that do not violate any of the fundamental tenets of these religions. I leave it to members of those religions to decide how comfortable they are with prayers like that on theological grounds.

But I guarantee you that if an Arab Christian started out a “nonsectarian” prayer addressing the divine as Allah, which Arab Christians have done for as long as there has been Christianity, the conservative echo chamber would explode with furor over how this supposedly “nonsectarian” prayer was actually evidence of a secret Muslim desire to institute shariah law. “Nonsectarian” has a lot of unmentioned implicit assumptions built in which highlight the ways that it is actually very sectarian, and very much about specific kinds of privilege and power.

When those implicit assumptions go unchallenged, it helps create a sense that the hegemonic group is more inclusive than it actually is. This backfires because it reinforces the power of the hegemons – who, as I observed above, will not relinquish power over the definition of the group that subtly privileges them above all other “nonsectarians.” Then the people who are still excluded – the atheists, the agnostics, the polytheists, the goddess-worshippers, and anyone who won’t play along with the pretend notion that everyone is talking to the same deity – are faced with an even larger, more powerful group.

The idea of “nonsectarian” prayer is nothing more nor less than an invisible set of clothes created and worn by hegemonic Protestant Christianity to excuse and defend it getting to have a privileged place in public discourse, most notably in the prayers given in the context of government business.

The threads are spun out of the artificially-created notion that there is something substantive which can be called “Judeo-Christian” religion. The cloth is woven in front of amazed onlookers by pseudo-generic Christians who have concealed their actual agendas in the frame of the loom which shapes the very warp and weft of their fantasy. It is dyed in the colors of imagined inclusiveness with the assistance of some members of minorities. And it is tailored to fit and flatter only the most privileged of the hegemons.

Others can either shape themselves to fit it – usually doing violence to the unique parts of themselves, their beliefs, and their practices – or they can explain how it doesn’t fit. But because of the wonderful consensus-inducing coating on the fibers, the fact that anybody who doesn’t fit will have parts of themselves show through the gaps in the invisible suit is always put down to their problems, rather than the nature of the suit, much less the fact that it doesn’t exist.

One of the reasons people are so reluctant to acknowledge that the nonsectarian minister emperor isn’t wearing any clothes is that we all want to think that if we work at getting along, we can make it happen. So “nonsectarian” becomes the religious and political version of “Intent is Magic!” If you say a prayer nicely enough, everybody will agree with it.

But part of having an adult, realistic conversation about religion in America today is being aware that, as Stephen Prothero put it, God is not one. He’s not even a he. I’m honest enough to acknowledge that not everyone practices religion in the same way I do. I’m asking for others to recognize the same.

I don’t care whether you have the best intentions in the world; when you are put in a position of speaking for government and you make me feel belittled, othered, and excluded, I am hurt by it. That’s wrong, and that’s one of many things the First Amendment is supposed to prevent. Especially when that exclusion conveys the stamp of governmental approval.

It’s time for the idea of “nonsectarian” prayer as an acceptable, non-exclusionary form of government-sponsored observance to be recognized for what it is: nonsense.

The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Nonsectarian prayer doesn’t exist.