September 2007 Church & State | Editorial

An incident that took place on the floor of the U.S. Senate July 12 reaffirms the intolerance and extremism of the Religious Right.

A Hindu chaplain had been invited to deliver an opening prayer. As soon as Rajan Zed began to speak, three protestors in the visitors’ gallery began shouting, disrupting the proceedings. One asked for forgiveness from Jesus Christ for the “abomination” of failing to pray to the “one true God.”

The protestors were removed, and Zed finished his invocation. It was later determined that the three are affiliated with a radical anti-abortion group called Operation Save America. Flip Benham, an ideological ally of the trio, posted a statement on his Web site praising them and blasting “false religions of this age.”

Americans United’s view has always been that official prayers before government bodies are inappropriate and unconstitutional. Government should not be in the prayer business, period. There should be no taxpayer-funded congressional chaplains in a country that respects the separation of church and state. Washington, D.C., has plenty of religious leaders and secular counselors who can meet the needs of the members of Congress and their staffs on a voluntary basis.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court does not agree. In 1983, the high court upheld legislative chaplains in a case called Marsh v. Chambers. In our view, Marsh is a poorly reasoned decision, but we’re stuck with it.

If prayers before Congress are deemed legal, they should be as non-sectarian as possible and those offering the invocations should reflect the diversity of the country. With this thought in mind, House and Senate leaders occasionally invite guest clergy from different faiths to deliver the daily invocation.

Zed was the first Hindu invited to offer the Senate prayer. (A Hindu offered a prayer before the House of Representatives in September of 2000.) Instead of welcoming this affirmation of pluralism, many Religious Right leaders went on the warpath.

Prior to Zed’s appearance, the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association circulated a petition opposing the prayer. The day of the invocation, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins bemoaned, “There is no historic connection between America and the polytheistic creed of the Hindu faith. I seriously doubt that Americans want to change the motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ which Congress adopted in 1955, to ‘In gods we Trust.’ That is essentially what the United States Senate did today.”

Actually, as we understand it, Hindus believe in one God with various manifestations. Zed’s prayer opened with a paean to “the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven.” He ended with a call for peace. Most observers probably saw it as non-sectarian.

Yet it put the Religious Right in a state of near hysteria. Aside from Wildmon and Perkins, a host of Religious Right lesser lights also weighed in. Among them was Roy Moore, Alabama’s infamous “Ten Commandments judge,” Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain who was drummed out of the service for insubordination, “Christian nation” propagandist David Barton and the Rev. Wiley Drake, former vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Drake went so far as to blather in a press release, “We have freedom of religion in America but not the freedom to invoke a false god to visit our U.S. Senate.”

Actually, the U.S. government has no power to determine what constitutes a “false god.” The comments offered by these and other Religious Right extremists only prove what Americans United has long noted: far from supporting religious freedom, these groups want a country where their narrow and exclusive version of Christianity reigns supreme. They demand that the government reflect and promote their view and are absolutely intolerant when any other faith asks for even a smidgen of recognition.

The irony is rich. These organizations have spent decades moaning about the alleged exclusion of religion from public life. Here is an example of religion playing a prominent public role – prayers are offered in the Congress every day the House and Senate meet, after all. But the public expression of religion offered in the Senate on July 12 was not welcome because it came from a “false” religion.

But it is “false” only according to the definition of the Religious Right’s brigade of dogmatists. The government cannot make such distinctions and is obligated to treat all faiths equally. The Religious Right, which has spent so much time demanding that faith play a public role, effectively held the door open for the first Hindu prayer in the Senate.

As noted earlier, Americans United does not support this type of government-sponsored prayer. But now that the system has been established, all faiths must be welcome to take part. (It would also not hurt for Congress to hear a secular invocation every now and then.) It is not the Religious Right’s job to decide which faiths get a place at the table.

Most Americans acknowledge and accept our nation’s diversity. Religious Right extremists, on the other hand, offer a recipe for inter-faith disharmony, supremacy of their faith over all others and calls for theocracy.

As a people, Americans are involved in an ongoing dialogue on how citizens of many faiths and none can best live together in harmony. The Religious Right, through its recent intolerant actions, has shown it has little to add to that discussion except discord.