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Prayer in the Bush League

Our Congresses consist of Christians. In their private life they are true to every obligation of honor; yet in every session they violate them all, and do it without shame; because honor to party is above honor to themselves.

Mark Twain

Show me the man who practices what his church teaches, and behaves in the way he says he believes, and I will join that church tomorrow.

Abraham Lincoln, when asked why he didn't join a church


I wrote the following letter to the editor and the Los Angeles Times published it 3/14/00:

George W. Bush not only favors a nationwide law letting students lead public prayers in school. He'd also allow students to ask their fellow students to follow Jesus Christ. Anyone who finds this scary, raise your hand.

Looks like we're headed back to the good ol' days when Jews and Native Americans were forced to hide their non-Christian beliefs. And if they protest this, conservatives label them "tribalists" who are being "divisive" and "balkanizing" America. But fundamentalist Christians aren't being divisive, right? No, they're obviously being inclusive, because they're happy to include anyone who converts to their religion.

Beware, America. The Bush leaguers are inching us toward a Christian theocracy. Fight back before it's too late.

Are the Bush leaguers just trying to exercise their right to free speech? Don't think so. As I said in another letter, 3/8/00, which the Times unaccountably didn't print:

When the first Christian school officials allow a student to wear a t-shirt featuring the Devil and the number 666, then I'll believe they believe in free speech.

There's no need to speculate what would happen. LA Times columnist Patt Morrison already tested the Christians' resolve. From the LA Times, 6/25/00:

When I graduated from high school, I was asked to deliver the closing prayer at an off-campus official graduation event. Boy, did I.

What I recited was a Zen Buddhist text; a wonderful teacher had given it to us in a humanities class. It had to do with enlightenment and acceptance, and the last line went like this: "The mind is brighter than sun and moon together, cleaner than frost and snow."

Well, the brimstone hit the fan. Some people complained, including the man of God who had gone on about Christianity in remarks that preceded mine. It wasn't a prayer of their faith or their Lord, they said. They felt left out, maybe even insulted.

My point exactly. And the Supreme Court's: A public prayer in an official place excludes those who pray differently, or to a different manifestation of God, or who don't pray at all. Like turning the divine into the No. 1 draft choice for the NBA or the NFL, it makes God a cheerleader for the "right side."

Readers respond
"Are you really that paranoid...or just that partisan."


Time proves Rob right
Unfortunately readers such as the one above didn't quite get the message. Bush's* first act as appointed president was to make his Christian bias unmistakable. If you're wondering if Bush* will protect Native American sovereignty or religious freedom, the answer is no.

From the LA Times, 1/24/01:

Bush Starts Off by Defying the Constitution


The very first act of the new Bush administration was to have a Protestant Evangelist minister officially dedicate the inauguration to Jesus Christ, who he declared to be "our savior." Invoking "the Father, the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ" and "the Holy Spirit," Billy Graham's son, the man selected by President George W. Bush to bless his presidency, excluded the tens of millions of Americans who are Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, agnostics and atheists from his blessing by his particularistic and parochial language.

The plain message conveyed by the new administration is that George W. Bush's America is a Christian nation, and that non-Christians are welcome into the tent so long as they agree to accept their status as a tolerated minority rather than as fully equal citizens. In effect, Bush is saying: "This is our home, and in our home we pray to Jesus as our savior. If you want to be a guest in our home, you must accept the way we pray."

But the United States is neither a Christian nation nor the exclusive home of any particular religious group. Non-Christians are not guests. We are as much hosts as any Mayflower-descendant Protestant. It is our home as well as theirs. And in a home with so many owners, there can be no official sectarian prayer. That is what the 1st Amendment is all about, and the first act by the new administration was in defiance of our Constitution.

This was surely not the first time in our long history that Jesus has been invoked at an official governmental assembly. But we are a different and more religiously diverse nation than we were in years past. There are now many more Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others who do not accept Jesus as their savior. It is permissible in the U.S. to reject any particular theology. Indeed, that is part of our glorious diversity. What is not acceptable is for a presidential inauguration to exclude millions of citizens from its opening ceremony by dedicating it to a particular religious "savior."

Our first president, George Washington, wrote to the tiny Jewish community in Rhode Island that in this new nation, we will no longer speak of mere "toleration," because toleration implies that minorities enjoy their inherent rights "by the indulgence" of the majority. President Bush should read that letter and show it to the Rev. Franklin Graham, who told the media on the day before the inauguration that his prayer "will be for unity"; instead, it was for the Trinity. Uniting for Jesus may be Graham's definition of unity, but it is as un-American as if a rabbi giving the official prayer had prayed for the arrival of the "true Messiah," thus insulting the millions of Christians who believe Jesus is the true Messiah.

Inaugurations are not the appropriate setting for theological proclamations of who is, and who is not, the true Messiah. Perhaps at Bob Jones University it is appropriate for an honorary degree recipient to declare Jesus to be the only king of the United States, but the steps of the Capitol should not be confused with the lectern of a denominational church.

The inauguration ended with another Protestant minister inviting all who agree that Jesus is "the Christ" to say, "Amen" (ironically, a word that originated in Jewish prayer or, alternatively, originally a Jewish acronym for "God, the King, forever.") Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), along with many others who do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, was put in the position of either denying his own faith or remaining silent while others around him all said, "Amen." This is precisely the position in which young public school students are placed when "voluntary" prayer is conducted at school events. If they join in prayer that is inconsistent with their religious beliefs, they have been coerced into violating their conscience. If they leave or refuse to join, they stand out as different among their peers. No student should be put in that position by their public schools at an assembly, just as no public official should be placed in that situation by their government at an inauguration.

If George W. Bush wants all Americans to accept him as their president, he made an inauspicious beginning by sandwiching his unity speech between two divisive, sectarian and inappropriate prayers.

# # #

Alan M. Dershowitz is a Professor at Harvard Law School

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

*Not the legitimate president.

Related links
God bless secular America
What Jesus said
Are ethnic groups "balkanizing" the US?
America's (multi)cultural wars

More readers respond
"I've known for some time what a zealot Bushie is...."
"It's his day, however he won, and if he wants to pray to his deity, so be it."

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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