U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who is chair of the House Armed Forces Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, has been opening subcommittee meetings with Christian prayers.
“Heavenly Father,…help us to be wise, help us to be good planners and good stewards,” Akin said at the start of a March 29 hearing, according to Congressional Quarterly. “And we pray that you help us with the somewhat busy schedule this morning, and the votes and all. And I pray in Jesus’ name.”
That is but one of several examples in which Akin has raised constitutional issues by opening meetings with prayers.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, says the Missouri congressman is on the wrong track.
“This is obviously a Christian prayer,” Lynn told CQ. “This is a public prayer in a public space in a public event sponsored by and promoted by a public official who either knows or should know that even members of his own subcommittee do not share the same religious background.”
That’s exactly right. Akin’s subcommittee is especially diverse – Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) is Jewish and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) is Buddhist. How would Akin feel if Davis chose to pray in Hebrew or Johnson wanted to meditate? What if a Muslim member were running the meetings and offered a prayer to Allah while kneeling toward Mecca?
Perhaps out of deference to the subcommittee chairman, Davis and Johnson have not yet criticized the sectarian invocations, but another Armed Services Committee member did.
“Any prayer that starts an official public meeting that pertains to any one particular religion is probably not in good judgment,” Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) told CQ.
Akin defended himself but seemed to miss the point about being inclusive.
“We start Congress with a prayer, and I think it’s a good idea to ask the Lord’s blessing,” he told CQ. “It gives us a sense of being respectful to each other.”
Akin also said that the prayer was a personal one, and his words shouldn’t be taken as representing the whole subcommittee. AU’s Lynn didn’t buy that, calling the defense “too cute by half.”
It’s not a surprise that Akin doesn’t get why anyone would be unhappy with him since this isn’t the first time he has tried to entangle religion and politics. In 2009, he participated in a Family Research Council-sponsored “prayercast” to pray for congressional rejection of health-care overhaul legislation.
Maybe that’s why the Religious Right group was quick to stick up for Akin. In a blog post, the FRC’s Robert Morrison said yesterday that George Washington at his inauguration in 1789 concluded his oath with the words “so help me God” and kissed the Bible.
“Washington was acutely aware that everything he did and said would form a precedent for future presidents,” Morrison wrote. “He was also acutely careful to respect the traditions and beliefs of his fellow citizens of the new republic.”
In fact, historians tell us that there is scant historical evidence that Washington added the extra-constitutional reference to the deity to his oath. He may have, but there’s not much proof of it.
But more importantly, Morrison is right that Washington tried to be careful to respect the beliefs of his fellow citizens. In his public remarks, our first president avoided sectarian references, and he assured religious minorities that they had full rights of citizenship in the United States.
Rep. Akin, in contrast, is offering overtly Christian invocations in his official capacity as a member of the federal government – something Washington did not do. Morrison even admits as much.
“It’s true that President Washington did not mention the name of Jesus in his Inaugural Address on this day in New York City in 1789,” Morrison said.
The Religious Right is always trying to hijack the Founding Fathers when it suits their needs. What Morrison doesn’t realize (or chooses to ignore) is that Washington very rarely discussed religion in any of his personal writings and as a result, we know little about his personal beliefs.
That contrasts sharply with some of today’s political leaders who seem intent on telling us more than we want to know about their personal religious commitments.
Politicians aren’t elected to serve as pastors, they’re elected to make the lives of all citizens better – including the ones who aren’t Christian or don’t believe in God. Akin needs to remember whom he serves, and be more respectful of everyone’s beliefs.