The U.S. Supreme Court Monday ruled that opening a town council, board of supervisors or other such public meeting with a prayer is acceptable and should not be banned.
While religious advocates praise the decision, they also overlook a key part of the ruling which noted that such prayer “should not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts.”
While the Supremes noted that such prayers can show a belief in Christianity, they can not be used to denigrate those who do not believe in a son of God, namely Jesus Christ. In other words, Christianity is not the only religion.
The late Silvio Conte, Republican and Catholic Congressman from New York, used to take the floor of Congress to remind his colleagues that America was a nation that supported “on a belief in God,” but not necessarily a belief in his son. Conte’s constituents included many Jews who choose not to supplement their belief in God with a shared acceptance of Christ.
That is their right in a free nation as it is also the right of Muslims to practice their belief in God in the way they were taught. Yet, even now, I hear disparaging remarks about Muslims from local pulpits. President Barack Obama, a practicing Christian, is often disparaged by right-wingers as a closet Muslim. He is not, of course, but facts seldom have a role in political rhetoric.
Former Congressman Virgil Goode of Franklin County was a committed racist, homophobe and hater of Muslims. Yet he was often the featured speaker at political gatherings in Floyd County.
Sadly, tolerance and an acceptance of diversity are too often lost in fervent religious rhetoric.
Writes Charles C. Haynes:
Culture warriors, pseudo historians and opportunistic politicians have spent the last several decades peddling the myth that America was founded as a “Christian nation.”
Forgive me for being snippy, but read the Constitution.
Nowhere will you find mention of God, Christ or any intention to found a Christian nation.
On the contrary, the only reference to religion in the Constitution before the addition of the Bill of Rights comes in Article VI:
This means that political power in the United States may never be limited to people of one faith a necessary condition for a “Christian nation” but must be open to people of all faiths or none.
Barring a religious test for office sparked widespread outrage in 1787, especially in states with religious tests designed to make sure that only Protestants or Christians would ever be allowed to hold elected office.
But in their wisdom, the Framers in Philadelphia knew that the time had come to break from the precedents of history and bar any religious group from ever imposing itself on the nation using the engine of government.
Even this wasn’t good enough for Thomas Jefferson and other founders who wanted to prohibit any and all entanglement of government and religion in the new nation.
In 1791, the opening words of the First Amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ” were added to the Constitution, further ensuring a fully secular state with a guarantee of religious freedom for all.
Adds Haynes: “Drafters of the Constitution took the radical step of founding the first nation in history with no established religion.”
Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.
He is a founding board member of the Character Education Partnership and serves on the steering committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and the American Bar Association Advisory Commission on Public Education. He chairs the Committee on Religious Liberty of the National Council of Churches.
Haynes also drafted a set of guidelines to protect religious freedom in American schools. Those guidelines are endorsed by many religious and educational organizations.
And, yes, he’s a Christian.
In 1983, while speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives, Congressman Silvio Conte noted that “In God We Trust” replaced “E Pluribus Unum” as America’s motto in the 1950s as part of the nation’s war against “godless” Communism and not as part of any religious declaration.
“Let’s remember that the motto is ‘In God We Trust,’ ” Conte said. “Just God. No one else.”
At a diner I used to frequent in Washington, DC, a sign was displayed prominently on the cash register.
“In God we trust,” the sign said. “All others pay cash.”