It seems that I’ve irked the gods of civic religion with the subject of my latest column. At first thinking it was yet another earthquake in the western suburbs, I’ve been feeling the tremors of their wrath emanating from their temple.
Titled “Let us prey: Two cities could be manipulating people’s religious faith,” my column this week questions the motives behind public officials who wish to open their meetings with prayer. One paragraph stated: “To be sure, most Americans express belief in a deity, and public officials enjoy mirroring the faith of their constituents. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that nonsectarian prayers offered as part of government meetings are permitted. So, as public officials, why not remind the voters that you’re on their side in the culture wars?”
The anger of these deities has been channeled through one of their prophets, Dave Diersen of Wheaton. On his daily political Web site, GOPUSA Illinois, Diersen today comments on my offering: “DIERSEN HEADLINE: VERY SAD: Anti-religious Jerry Moore blasts religious Elmhurst and Wheaton.”
It’s not the first time Diersen has called me on the carpet, and I don’t expect it to be the last. Nor is this Diersen’s inaugural comment on this topic — his last one was incredibly unnerving.
In commenting on a newspaper item last week about Wheaton’s practice of offering a prayer before City Council meetings, Diersen wrote the following: “Needless to say, it is the epitome of hypocrisy for an anti-religious person to chose to live in religious Wheaton.”
Whoa! Is this Diersen’s idea of setting out the Christian welcome mat?
Diersen is claiming that nonreligious people have no business making their home in Wheaton, never mind all that crap about this being a free country. He harbors a delusion of DuPage County (Wheaton, in particular) being a cultural country club where only those who profess the correct political, social and religious views are permitted entrance.
The issue of government-endorsed prayer came up again recently as Elmhurst has joined the list of towns offering prayer before sessions of the City Council. Mayor Pete DiCianni proposed that the City Council resume the practice after a long absence. Other towns that offer prayers before their meetings are Addison, Batavia, St. Charles, Villa Park, West Chicago and Wheaton.
The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation last year asked the Wheaton City Council to discontinue its practice of soliciting prayers before City Council meetings, and it recently made the same request of Elmhurst. Both requests went unheeded.
There was a tad more resistence to this practice in Elmhurst than there was in Wheaton. Third Ward Aldermen Michael Bram and Susan Rose, and 7th Ward Alderman Mark Mulliner intentionally arrived late to the first Elmhurst City Council meeting where a prayer was offered.
The FFRF became involved with the case in Wheaton because one of its officers, Theodore Utchen, lives in Wheaton and sent a letter to Mayor Mike Gresk. Utchen pointed out to Gresk that many of the prayers offered referenced Jesus and, thus, are unconstitutionally sectarian.
City officials said they are now developing written guidelines regarding the prayers offered prior to City Council meetings; they want to make sure Christianity isn’t the only religious tradition represented. Given Wheaton’s longstanding connection to evangelical Christianity, however, that’s going to be a tall order.
Officials said they want to be inclusive, but this is much easier said than done. In as WASP-y a community as Wheaton is, how many of its residents would tolerate their City Council session opening with members of a witches coven forming a drum circle seeking the godess’s blessing on all in attendance?
Prayers considered nonsectarian have been deemed constitutional, although a “nonsectarian prayer” is oxymoronic. To understand why, let’s examine the meaning of “sect”:
“Any group of people having a common leadership, set of opinions, philosophical doctrine, political principles, etc. …” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Third Edition)
Invoking the guidance and/or blessing of a supreme being is an appeal to the supernatural. Accepting the existence of the supernatural is not a universal belief, differentiating those who believe in the supernatural from those who don’t.
Praying to a deity, therefore, assumes a commonly held opinion that such a supreme being exists, a viewpoint held only by members of one group. Since a sect is defined as a group with commonly held philosophical doctrines, people who believe in the supernatural constitute a sect.
Add to this the fact that prayers offered prior to government meetings are made to God (commonly accepted as a singular male figure), as opposed to Godess (female) or the gods (plural). Since the female and plural deities are usually associated with paganism, we can narrow the use of God to the monotheistic tradition. And since God is invoked rather than Allah, we can further narrow this to Judeo/Christianity.
If praying to the Judeo/Christian supreme being is not sectarian in nature, what the hell is?
So, what’s wrong with a government entity endorsing the Judeo/Christian deity? Would this put a town on the road to theocracy?
Not necessarily, but it’s not a good practice. For one, there’s always the threat of a lawsuit from someone who believes that municipal officials have become too religious. Be it a legitimate complaint or an annoying act of litigation, towns can avoid this problem by staying away from prayer.
In my column, I argued that the inherent problem with public bodies offering prayers to a deity is that they’ll be inclined to reflect the dominant religious viewpoint of their communities. What happened in Wheaton (frequent appeals to Jesus) is likely to happen in any town where one religion holds sway over others.
And towns with one dominant religious mentality are more likely to offer prayers at their meetings than those with religious groups holding near-equal sway. So, the chances of a municipality veering toward the religious sentiment expressed by the majority of its residents is very high. What would be the point of offering prayers before a government meeting if constituents (also known as voters) don’t believe their views are confirmed?
This desire to have a local government confirm such sentiments is at the root of the problem. When it comes to religion, the U.S. Constitution mandates that governments remain neutral. They shouldn’t be confirming people’s belief in the supernatural, nor should they be denying them.
The proper role of a government is to zealously protect people’s right to hold and express any religious viewpoint they’d like. And to protect the rights of all Americans given their diverse beliefs, the government must stay out of the way.
My position, therefore, is pro-religion, not anti-religion. A public body that favors one religious viewpoint over another is less inclined to fairly consider policy recommendations from those with opposing beliefs.
I invite Dave Diersen or anyone else with an opinion on the matter to submit a letter to the editor or leave a comment below. In the meantime, I can only pray that the gods of civic religion direct their anger toward someone else.