Sunday, November 29, 2009

A God By Any Other Name?

True story.

I was called at my office at the church several years ago, by the City Secretary of Dallas. She has been a good friend of mine for more years than I can remember, long before she was City Secretary so, of course I was concerned.

It seems that in an effort to be religiously inclusive, the invocation for the next day's city council meeting was scheduled to be given by...the Wiccans! Now in common vernacular this group is generally associated with witches - as in 'bubble, bubble, boil and trouble'. It's not entirely accurate from what I understand, but again, we're talking about public perception.

There was no good solution. To 'uninvite' the Wiccans, would be to stir up controversy. To go through with their giving the invocation would be to...well this is Dallas, so you get the picture.
I was assured it was not a laughing matter, as the press was asking how on earth the City Secretary's office didn't know who it was they had invited to pray in a public I stopped laughing. She was calling because they were taking the least controversial action, which amounted to postponing a decision on letting the Wiccans pray. In the meantime, they needed someone to come in and offer the invocation, which is why she was calling me. She knew that I was one pastor she could call who could give a 'non-sectarian' prayer.

As usual, I didn't grasp the magnitude of the dilemma. One council member, a VERY conservative woman with whom I had not had good dealings in the past and with whom I agreed on virtually nothing except the most rudimentary tenets of the Christian faith, reached out and shook my hand saying, 'I am SO GLAD to see you here today. Thank you so much for doing this!'

After the prayer, then Mayor Ron Kirk and I were interviewed on the controversy, by local television reporters.

I bring this up because of a recent article in Newsweek magazine.

A federal judicial appointment is stalled because of his stance on the use of God's Name in invocations at public governmental functions.

"[Judge David] Hamilton, (President Obama's first judicial nominee) nominated last March, has seen his confirmation stalled until last week in the U.S. Senate, in part because his opponents claim he's a judicial activist for an opinion he wrote about God's proper secular title. In a 2005 case, Hinrichs v. Bosma, Hamilton determined that those who pray in the Indiana House of Representatives "should refrain from using Christ's name or title or any other denominational appeal," and that such prayer must hereinafter be "nonsectarian.""

"Bosma questioned the practice of opening state legislative sessions with sectarian Christian prayers that included a prayer for worldwide conversion to Christianity. Hamilton found this to be a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause because it was government speech that favored one religious sect over another. In a post-judgment order, Hamilton also wrote that the "Arabic word 'Allah' is used for 'God' in Arabic translations of Jewish and Christian scriptures" and that 'Allah' was closer to "the Spanish Dios, the German Gott, the French Dieu, the Swedish Gud, the Greek Theos, the Hebrew Elohim, the Italian Dio, or any other language's terms in addressing the God who is the focus of the non-sectarian prayers" than Jesus Christ. Hamilton, himself a Christian, also added that "if and when the prayer practices in the Indiana House of Representatives ever seem to be advancing Islam, an appropriate party can bring the problem to the attention of this or another court.""

Such an issue is not uncommon. It has raised its head not only in prayers before council and county government bodies, but a false sense of militancy among some of my clergy colleagues who tend to wax eloquent in defence of their 'right' to pray in Jesus' Name, for instance.

I feel somewhat differently. Not that it is right or wrong to pray in Jesus' Name, but I think we have a somewhat naive sense of what that means. Among the scriptures used to support praying verbally ' Jesus' Name', is found in John 14:13, "And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." It becomes a type of password, a near magic talisman that assures that the prayer will be answered. It is also viewed by supporters of this mode of praying that it is also a testimony regarding our belief in the 'one True God.' I get all of that.

But, the reality is that simply praying in Jesus' Name, doesn't guarantee an answered prayer. For those of us who believe, praying in Jesus' Name means praying with the authority of His Name. It is not carte blanche to get anything simply by making sure we end our prayers with the proper wording.

Secondly, we are going to have to learn that we are a pluralistic society. That means that we have to share the public square with people of other faiths. How far does that go? How does that look? I don't know. But we're going to have to figure out how to share the public square. We'll have to learn to make room for other faith traditions and modes of religious expressions. We don't have to agree with or adopt them, but people who have a different faith are citizens. They bring to the public square the same influences that we Christians do and there are times when those influences are going to have to be acknowledged.

But there are problems associated with even this line of argument.

Whose religion is going to be considered legitimate and whose is not? Is our conversation more about a civic faith and the traditions of our culture? Or is this really a matter of religions competing for primacy in public life? Or is it a political agenda masquerading as religious concern? I don't believe we've sorted this out and until we do, all faiths run the risk of being used politically, even as much as they seek to influence the political process.

In the meantime a knotty issue continues.

The Newsweek article comes close to understanding the harsh reality of this challenge and Judge Hamilton's stalled confirmation:

"The Supreme Court has sliced and diced religious symbols and prayers into the impossible-to-apply paradoxes of secular-religious and heartfelt-thus-unconstitutional. For the millions of Americans, both religious and secular, left standing out in the public square with just a teddy bear in a Santa hat, this is an insult."

"Opponents of Judge Hamilton should acknowledge that he was not privileging Allah over Jesus. He was trying to thread the constitutional needle that deems God's name—whatever the language—secular, but Jesus' name sectarian. The truth is, Hamilton has gone out of his way to impose a constitutional test that defies both logic and common sense. That makes him more "neutral umpire" than "judicial activist" by my lights. It takes a brave man to impose a test guaranteed to promote the unpopular fiction that America is one nation, under a secular deity to be named later, indivisible."

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