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Pray, Why Not?

Public-arena secularism lost one yesterday.

By 5.6.14

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s latest public prayer decision reminds us what an increasingly terrible time our liberals have with God. To wit, they don’t really want him around: well, certainly no more than necessary, and when he does show up, the less said about it, the better. Except that considerable numbers of Americans appear very much to want him around. How to make these obsessives take their obsessions discreetly out of sight? Such is the liberals’ perplexity.

In Greece, New York, a suburb of Rochester, the town board has, since 1999, invited local religious leaders to open meetings with prayer. The preponderance of these leaders has been Christian (there have been no calls in Greece, apparently, for the blessings of Zeus). Two disconcerted locals sued; they wished the town to demote the Christian/Jewish God to a more generic status. A federal district court said Greece was doing just fine; an appeals court asserted the reverse; this week the Supreme Court agreed with Greece, finding, 5 to 4, in favor of what Justice Anthony Kennedy called “a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the scrutiny of time and political change.”

Kennedy noted the town’s felt need “to accommodate the spiritual needs of lawmakers.” He traced precedents in the case back to the republic’s earliest years. He said under town patronage God had heard not just from Christians but from a Jewish layman, a Baha’i member and, for heaven’s sake, a Wiccan priestess. Greece worked at ecumenicity and inclusion: just not hard enough to suit the four liberal dissenters, namely, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Kagan spoke for the liberal bloc in a manner that could leave one wondering whether the liberal mind has more than an inch of cobwebby space to spare for an old-fashioned premise — namely, that the God generally accredited with creation of the universe merits occasional public attention: at minimal, if any, cost to public unity.

Not so, the court minority appears to believe. Kagan scoured America’s constitutional flooring for chinks through which prejudice and rancor could emerge in the event of undue public coziness with God. What about the Muslim woman wanting to address the town board about a traffic signal? Would she feel somehow less a citizen, less a petitioner following the mention of Jesus’ name? Kagan wasn’t — she said — in favor of shutting out prayer as prayer. But “we are a pluralistic people,” and apparently that’s the main thing going on here. The possibility for exclusion and division was ever on her mind.

What need for religion anyway? This is the question seemingly at the back of the court minority’s mind. “When the citizens of this country approach their government, “ wrote Kagan, “they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another.” Oh, really? Religious faith is a Sunday diversion? That’s it? A disposition? A mental habit? A yellowing inheritance from Great-Grandma? Nothing to do with the way the mind — far less the soul — imposes purpose and meaning on life?

No wonder, if this is so, that the four naysayers in the Greece case seem to see prayer as a needless imposition on the patience of the non-prayerful. The minority’s own account of reality is inward-looking: undisturbed by cosmic considerations; doubtful, perhaps, if such considerations exist at all.

The secularism of the Western cultural and political left — its persistent indifference to religious faith — may be its most conspicuous attribute. Having written off God for most worldly purposes, liberals can proceed to the construction of their own snug, secure, non-religious vision of human affairs and relationships. No unchangeable realities, no moral systems; just good old free-floating politics, founded on polls, warm thoughts, and law review articles.

That the town board of Greece, New York, might be more in tune with reality than Justice Kagan and the high court’s three other fans of public-arena secularism — what a possibility! The proofs of prayer, at that, are said to be wondrous and sometimes totally unexpected.

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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.