Asking for trouble

So, a Hindu "chaplain" led a prayer in the Senate and got disrupted for it. Senator Harry Reid, who had invited the speaker, introduced him and was careful enough of potential objections to invoke Gandhi as the prototypical Hindu:
I think it speaks well of our country that someone representing a faith of about a billion people comes here and can speak in communication with our Heavenly Father regarding peace. I am grateful he is here. I am thankful he was able to offer this prayer of peace in the Capitol. I say to everyone concerned, think of Gandhi. If you have a problem in the world, think what this great man has done to bring peace and nonviolence to a troubled world.
But maybe he shouldn't have bothered. Hindus don't have chaplains who give sermons; it's much more of a ritualistic faith. So, the whole idea of a religious guy leading an extemporaneous prayer simply doesn't really carry over.

Organized religion is so jingoistic that inviting a non-Christian leader to lead prayers was simply asking for trouble. I don't think this jingoism is limited to Christian zealots, as some would have it. Christian prayers in a Muslim country would bring out protests that are even more loud.

The two backstories (Reid's and Zed's) though do bring up a few inconvenient thoughts:
  1. So Reid gave rides to Indian graduate students when he was in college.
    I lived off campus. I was married. I would drive up that hill to the campus, and walking every day were students. They were Indians, coming from India to the United States to study. Utah State specialized in engineering and agriculture. These young men came from India to study at Utah State University. I would give them rides. I did that for 2 years, put as many in the car as would fit.
    A Mormon guy with a bunch of heathens in his car? Did Reid take up the opportunity to proselytize?
  2. The students gave him an ivory elephant that he still has.
    I don't remember all they gave me, but I do remember one item. It is in my office in the Capitol. That was many years ago. We have had five children since then and lots of grandchildren. But it was a little statue of Gandhi, hand carved. It is ivory.
    Was ivory trading legal at the time? How old is Reid anyway?
  3. Zed was asked to deliver his prayer in English exclusively. So, they are more afraid of the English-only crowd than of the Christian-only crowd? Really?


  1. Interesting.

    Last year I read Ratzinger's Truth and Tolerance. The question of whether it is appropriate for Christians to pray together with non-Christians is an interesting one, and there is some subtlety to its right treatment. There is the asymmetry in which certain non-Christians would claim that they are willing to engage in common prayer with Christians; whereas properly formed Christians would be required respectfully to decline from participating in such prayer, which despite the appearance of being "common" could not in truth actually be so.

    That said, it is another matter entirely to consider the justification for a disruptive protest. I believe not only that the created world is really distinct from the transcendent (but also immanent) Creator, in Whose image certain creatures (humans) are made, but also that this belief is crucial to the proper understanding of human dignity, upon which the republic is rightly founded. So I admit that for an assembly of the government to be led in prayer by one who might deny a foundational philosophical idea---or who, at best, admits it simultaneously with other ideas that contradict it---is troubling. Nevertheless, I should expect at the very least from those who would protest in a disruptive fashion a clear and correct philosophical exposition of their protest. This I have not seen. Moreover, I think that there could have been a more constructive and positive protest, if indeed one were even called for.

    As I see it, one problem is that a person who calls himself Christian and claims to act in this public protest on behalf of his religion must avoid the temptation of worshiping the state. At least, he must avoid the temptation of associating the state too closely with his religion. With respect to the constitution of the government, the real issue is how to ground the inalienable rights of the individual human as against, say, a dog. The protester's concern ought not to be whether the leader of the prayer is Christian but whether the leader of the prayer would genuinely advocate the principles on which the republic is founded.

  2. The wrinkle with this argument is that not even members of the state are required to advocate the principles on which the state was founded. Presidents and senators do take an oath to uphold the constitution, but the "principles" are too vague. The constitution is constantly reinterpreted (by the Supreme Court), but the principles are not formally stated anywhere.

    Even the founders didn't agree on the principles. Hence the Federalist papers.

    Being altogether less religious than you, my view on all this is that the less sanctimony there is in government, the better.

  3. By your desire for "less sanctimony", I suppose that you mean that it would be better, for example, if there were no prayer whatsoever to cause trouble in a Congressional assembly. If so, then I see your point.

    At issue is whether a minimal "civil religion" shared in common by all (or at least by most) could exist. Thinking of Socrates, I am hopeful of this, though I know that there are detractors of this view, and it is possible that you would be among them. At the very least, it should be possible for Jews, Christians, Muslims, and every follower of Socrates to pray together on behalf of the individual dignity which grounds the notion of inalienable rights.

    Such a liturgy in my view, though it risks some protest, is useful and good for reminding us of what principles must be shared in order logically to ground the law. Even among principles, some are more important than others, which have long been debated, and one in particular is more important than all the rest.

    The facts

    (1) that there must always be some vagueness in the assertion of principle and

    (2) that the interpretation of stated principle by the highest secular authority changes over time

    should motivate us not to be chauvinistic, not to worship the state as God. Nevertheless, in my opinion, we must always strive in some way explicitly to point toward God, even in the establishment of secular government, for I don't see any rational way to ground the dignity of the individual human other than as an image of the Creator.