18 April 2010

Do We Have to Cancel Thanksgiving?

As a non-believer myself, I can't criticize the reasoning behind a Wisconsin federal court's ruling that the "National Day of Prayer," a tradition since the 1950s (like many similar public pieties) is unconstitutional. The ruling judge issued an injunction against the President renewing the annual call but stayed it immediately pending appeals, while it's been reported since the ruling that the chief executive will go on and follow tradition regardless of the judge's opinion.

The judge refuted the prevailing reasoning that argued that a call to prayer itself does not violate the First Amendment so long as it's vague enough not to endorse any specific faith or denomination. Her finding is that prayer itself is inherently religious, and that no matter how broadly religion is defined, a presidential call to prayer is, in effect, an endorsement of prayerfulness as opposed to the irreligious attitude that there is no one or nothing to pray to. The call to prayer might be defended as a mere invitation, and implicitly an invitation to believers only, but the plaintiffs in this case have just as much right to feel that they are being exhorted against their consciences to perform an offensive act. It might be easy to argue that there's nothing compulsory about the call, but it's just as easy to argue that a presidential endorsement of prayer as an appropriate activity for any or all Americans could have a chilling effect on those who decline to pray. While religious activists have argued that the First Amendment does not confer "freedom from religion," Judge Crabbe says that it does. That makes sense; there can only be freedom of religion if there is also freedom not to be religious.

In our stupid age, it was necessary for the judge to add that she was not ruling that prayer itself was illegal. Don't be surprised, though, if radio heads tell you over the next week that that's exactly what she ruled. There are more formidable arguments against her position, however, in the form of precedents. Even our "deist" early presidents issued calls to prayer or thanksgiving, as did onetime and possibly lifelong agnostic Abraham Lincoln. Even those leaders who denied the literal truth of scripture endorsed, if only for the sake of public order, the idea of a supreme being, gratitude to which for its creation of life was a prerequisite for morality. Only in very recent times have professional fundraising atheists made a stink about it. Speaking for myself, I've never felt myself under pressure to pray as a result of any presidential statement. I've gone for years at a time happily unaware that I'd been encouraged to pray on a certain date of the year, and it goes without saying that I've never suffered for not doing so. Some nonbelievers are more sensitive on this point than I am, and some have an active interest in silencing religion altogether. But the real issue here seems to be whether anyone really feels oppressed by the call to prayer, or whether they're merely offended by it. I'm offended by it intellectually but not emotionally, and I can tell myself that the call is really aimed only at those already inclined to respond. I've never felt a need to put an end to the National Day of Prayer, but at the same time, it's not a big deal if it does end, apart from the stink it'll raise among the professionally pious. When you look at it, the only person who's had his rights limited by this ruling is the President of the United States, and despite his low-risk defiance of the ruling, I'd like to think that the President does not feel that much less free this weekend.

For more on the history of the National Day of Prayer and its unsurprising origins in anti-communist religiosity, read here.

7 comments:

hobbyfan said...

Oh, stop the freakin' pain! Judge Crabb kowtows to a bunch of publicity-needy jabronies whose organization few have heard of. "Nontheism"? Hmmmph! No wonder these folks don't get any attention. I would dare say that a good chunk of the people in the US are either Christians, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, et al, and that doesn't include the cults like Scientology.

It is my viewpoint that the National Day of Prayer is simply Congress allowing folks to exercise their options without fear of any sort of reprisal for one day. For Judge Crabb to strike it down to appease a bunch of small-timers looking for attention is wrong.

Samuel Wilson said...

hobbyfan: "reprisal?" Do you really think the government needs to set aside a day to create a free zone for prayer? Are people being persecuted for prayer in this country? If anything, and if immunity from "reprisal" is going to be the standard, we need a National Atheism Day.

Crhymethinc said...

Let god come and show himself and prove his existence once and for, before all mankind. Until that happens, religion is a matter of faith and faith is a personal matter which does not belong in either the public nor political spheres.

hobbyfan said...

Actually, that's the "reprisal" I was referring to, giving the atheists and "nontheists" more face time than they really need.

Oh, and, crhymethinc, you might change your opinion the next time you step into a church to attend a friend's wedding or some other event.

Samuel Wilson said...

hobby: Atheists "need" exactly as much "face time" as believers do -- no more and no less. And as long as you seem to disapprove of attention seeking, I'll remind you that there are three different channels of Christian propaganda on my local cable service, and not even one atheist or agnostic program that I know of.

Crhymethinc said...

Last time I stepped into a church was for a friend's son's baptism. When I entered, all the lights dimmed. I wasn't aware of this at the time as I was wearing shades. I wondered why the priest was staring at me for most of his sermon. I found it amusing afterwards.

hobbyfan said...

Sam: One channel is a Catholic station (EWTN). Then you have TBN & Daystar, the latter of which was added within the last year or two.