September 2007 Church & State | Featured

When Rajan Zed stepped to the lectern in the U.S. Senate July 12 to give the day’s invocation, he wasn’t expecting any trouble.

“I thought that it will be a simple, roughly 90-second prayer,” the Hindu chaplain told Church & State, “and it will go very smoothly (as the prayers are a time for reflection), like the ones I delivered in the Nevada State Assembly and Nevada State Senate a few months back. And everybody will go back to the normal routine.”

But the opening of the Senate that day was anything but normal routine.

As Zed began his remarks, three fundamentalist Christian protestors in the Senate visitors’ gallery began to shout and pray loudly.

“Lord Jesus, forgive us, Father, for allowing a prayer of the wicked which is an abomination in your sight,” said one. “This is an abomination!  We shall have no other gods before you.”

The startled Hindu religious leader looked warily toward the commotion, as Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the presiding officer that day, strode forward to restore order.

Security personnel from the Capitol Police and the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms’ Office quickly arrested the protestors for disrupting the proceeding.

Zed, dressed in a colorful robe and wearing a Hindu tilak on his forehead, then went on with his prayer.

“We meditate,” he intoned, “on 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. May he stimulate and illuminate our minds.

“Lead us,” he continued, “from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us.”

After praying for the senators to work carefully and wisely, he concluded, “United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be as one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord. Peace, peace, peace be unto all.”

The self-proclaimed “Christian patriots” who interrupted the prayer – Ante Pavkovic, his wife Katherine Pavkovic and their 19-year-old daughter Christan Renee Sugar of North Carolina – are apparently affiliated with Operation Save America, a theocracy-minded group best known for its anti-abortion zealotry.

In a statement on the group’s Web site, the Rev. Flip Benham, president of Operation Save America, observed, “The falsehood of Hinduism was eloquently challenged yesterday by those who know the truth that sets people free – Jesus.... May the hallowed halls and chambers of Congress of the United States of America never again entertain the false religions of this age.”

Benham said the Pavkovic family was in Washington, D.C., to oppose a hate-crimes bill pending in Congress. When they learned that Zed was scheduled to deliver the Senate invocation, they decided to remain and protest the prayer.

This eruption of interfaith hostility in the U.S. Capitol, the very seat of American government, quickly became the focus of national and international debate about the role of religion and government in the United States.

Religious Right forces seized on the issue to reaffirm their claims that America is a Christian nation and that their version of Christianity should have a privileged place in American government and American life. Mainstream religious and political leaders and civil liberties advocates responded with a spirited defense of pluralism and church-state separation.

The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins took a hard line on the Hindu chaplain’s prayer.

“No one,” he said, “can legitimately challenge the fact that the God America refers to in the pledge, our national motto and other places is the monotheistic God of the Jewish and Christian faith. There is no historic connection between America and the polytheistic creed of the Hindu faith.”

Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association told Roll Call that his organization was also angry.

“This goes against all history and tradition of our country,” he said. “This fella does not even believe in one God as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence speak of…. So we object to this kind of prayer before the United States Senate.” (Actually, observers note, the Constitution does not speak of God at all.)

“The god of popular culture today is tolerance and multi-culturalism, and so I guess the Senate wants to see how far they can go with this idea that all religion and faiths are equal and the same,” he continued. “Hopefully, it won’t happen again.”

After learning about the Hindu chaplain’s pending invocation, Wildmon’s Tupelo Miss.-based AFA had asked its members to deluge the Senate with complaints.

The group recruited Christian nation propagandist David Barton to support its campaign against prayer to a “non-monotheistic god.”

Said Barton, “In Hindu [sic], you have not one God, but many, many, many, many gods. And certainly that was never in the minds of those who did the Constitution, did the Declaration when they talked about Creator – that’s not one that fits here because we don’t know which creator we’re talking about within the Hindu religion.”

But many religious, political and civil liberties leaders blasted the Religious Right for its narrow-minded approach to public life.

“This shows the intolerance of many Religious Right activists,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “They say they want more religion in the public square, but it’s clear they mean only their religion…. America is a land of extraordinary religious diversity, and the Religious Right just can’t seem to accept that fact.

“I don’t think the Senate should open with prayers,” he said. “But if it’s going to happen, the invocations ought to reflect the diversity of the American people.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who invited Zed, a resident of Reno, to give the invocation, urged acceptance of pluralism.

“If people have any misunderstanding about Indians and Hindus, all they have to do is think of Gandhi,” he said. “If there were ever a time with this international war on terror that we’re fighting now where people have to understand how important peace is, think of Gandhi, a man who gave his life for peace.”

Zed, who is director of public affairs for the Hindu Temple of Northern Nevada, was stoic about his experience.

“This was reportedly the first Senate prayer since its formation in 1789, which was protested,” he told Church & State. “Although the blogs it generated were mixed, the emails and letters I received about the prayer and protest were all inspiring, most of these apologetic [about the interruption] and thankful.

“Although we have much more conscious awareness of religious pluralism today than in the past,” he continued, “the religious as well as non-religious people need to have deeper, broader and more inclusive understanding of religion, which still wields huge power.”

Zed had some advice for the Religious Right and others with an exclusive view of faith.

“Despite our philosophical differences, we have similar objectives,” he said. “We all believe in a superior being and we simply differ on how each of us perceives/embodies/responds to Ultimate/Divine Reality. Differences begin when we start claiming to be the sole guardians of ‘truth.’ We should share our quest for truth. Dialogue will make us spiritually richer. We need to overcome the prejudices handed down to us by the previous generations.”

The controversy over Zed’s prayer continued to reverberate a month later.

U.S. Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) told Wildmon’s OneNewsNow that he thinks the Hindu-led prayer was wrong.

“We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now, Keith Ellison from Minnesota,” he said, in the Aug. 8 edition of the news service. “Those are changes – and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.”

Sali indicated that God might lift his “protective hand” if the United States drifts from its Christian principles.

When Sali’s remarks provoked an uproar in the blogosphere, he refused to back down.

Although he said he regretted the way his remarks were portrayed, he told The Idaho Statesman, “The idea that somehow we can move to multi-culturalism and still remain the same – I think that’s a little dangerous too. From my standpoint, I believe the Founding Fathers were overwhelmingly Christian and the God they were talking about is the God of the Bible.”

Americans United’s Lynn said the whole episode underscores the need for church-state separation and public awareness about the extreme theocratic agenda of the Religious Right.

“The genius of America,” said Lynn, “is that we have left decisions about religion to each individual American. The government has no role, other than to protect that freedom of conscience.”