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Pious Sounds

Prayer and the Maryland Senate.

by Barnabas
February 5, 2003

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Pious Sounds_Barnabas-Prayer and the Maryland Senate.
“Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) is accustomed to settling disputes in Annapolis, but the Maryland Senate president has suddenly found himself in a holy battle over the use of Jesus's name in prayers on the Senate floor.”

— “Senate, Clergy Battle Over Praying in Jesus' Name.” Washington Post, January 30.

The news report comes from Maryland, but it could have come from anywhere in the USA. It seems that the Maryland Senate invited Christian ministers to pray, and then some senators were offended because they prayed like Christians.

The solution to the Senate’s problem is immediately available: If you don’t want Christians to pray like Christians, don’t invite them at all. Anybody can read a prayer -- which, it appears, is all that the offended senators want anyway. Finding or writing prayers without religious content is tricky, so it’s safer to have unbelievers write them; who knows what dogma might otherwise sneak in? To write such prayers and read them you don’t have to believe in any god, much less the God of the Bible. All you have to do is make unspecific pious sounds.

The fuss in the Maryland Senate is about tolerance, undeniably a high value. But if it is the absolute dominant value (which, when you consider it, it logically cannot be), then don’t pray at all. By the same logic, if there is a Jehovah’s Witness present, don’t pledge the flag either. Of course, true tolerance, the kind Miss Manners and Barnabas know about, gives the praying person freedom to speak, as implied in your invitation. It would also mean letting the Jehovah’s Witness stand or sit mute when the pledge is recited. Tolerance means taking your guests as they are, or not inviting them in the first place. You are not being tolerant when you are calling another person intolerant.

The tradition of inviting clergy to bless civil occasions has nothing to do with prayer if the visitors cannot say what they want to say the way they want to say it. It’s hard to say, in a land without established religion, exactly what it has to do with. It doesn’t even rise to the level of a respectable superstition.

A few years ago our state legislature invited a local football hero of mythic stature to address them on his retirement from professional football. Everyone knew that out of season he was a Baptist preacher from Tennessee. Yet they were offended when he sounded like one—that is to say, a bit “intolerant” to political ears sensitively tuned to be offended on behalf of almost anyone.

Yet if there was a fault here -- I happen to believe that freedom of speech is not a fault -- it belonged to the legislature. They knew what he was when they invited him.

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