By now there have been several reports regarding the row in Scotland over the walk out of several town council members during a prayer offered in the council chamber by members of the Samye Ling. Several members of the council felt that sitting through the prayer was in conflict with their religious faith, and ducked out the door- a response that has touched off arguments over inclusiveness and political correctness in Scotland, and may even result in an inquiry into the councilor’s conduct by a national standards body.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a Buddhist monk performed the opening prayers at the state senate– in part as a way to convince a watchdog group not to file suit to stop the practice of opening senate proceedings with prayers. The monk, whose prayers “omitted the name of Buddha”, spoke to reporters before the ceremony, and argued that religion did have a place in government as a way of bringing the wisdom of religious traditions to bear in the public sphere.
Which raises the question: why, exactly, do we have prayers in these public gatherings? Every culture feels the need to solemnize public occasions somehow, particularly when they are concerned with weighty matters, as occasions of state import often are. But realistically, we have to acknowledge that these prayers continue to take place out of habit and tradition, rather than respecting specific values of the government- particularly in America, which has no state church, but equally in any secular nation where freedom of conscience is guaranteed. Prayer at public occasions is a habit, one brought aboard from the days when the state and the church were largely synonymous, and tolerated for years because of the relative uniformity of belief found among the populace.
Now, that homogeneity is no longer a valid assumption. No longer is it going to be the case that all, or even most, people at a public meeting will share the same faith. That leaves two options: to allow prayers of a specific faith, and ignore the alienation of minority members, or allow only ‘non-sectarian’ prayers which are, somehow, religious without subscribing to any single religion. Such prayers quickly sink to the level of mere platitude, cut off as they must be from the unique insights that give the religious traditions of the world their punch. Worse, it leads quickly into debate over what the ‘proper’ way to pray on public occasions is; is a Buddhist still non-sectarian if he repeatedly references ‘loving kindness’, or ‘dependent origination’? What about an evangelical who mentions, as George W. Bush once did, ‘wonder-working power’ without ever once mentioning Jesus? Is it non-sectarian to settle on god as singular with a capital ‘G’, or to refer to spirits or ancestors? Again, in the effort to avoid offense we put the state in the position of defining a civil religion, a thin version of religious language to be used on public occasions, with watch dog groups watching in the wings to enforce deviations from the approved language in the courts.
A Labor party objector to the behavior of the Scottish councilors claimed that their withdrawal from the Buddhist prayer cast doubt on their ability to represent their constituents regardless of creed. Such concern fails to recognize a critical difference between respecting faith and participating in it. The councilors have a responsibility to treat their constituents as they would all others in government matters, regardless of their faith. That does not translate into a responsibility to attend or participate in religious ceremonies. Why are such ceremonies- be they Buddhist, Christian, or ‘non-sectarian’- being forced on anyone in public service, or anyone who attends a city council meetings? Furthermore, offering prayers in council hardly seems like an appropriate way for a government to recognize a milestone of a community religious organization; holding a mass to recognize the anniversary of a cathedral would be no more appropriate.
Putting prayers in the midst of government business provides opportunities for conflict and misunderstanding without providing any demonstrable benefit. Religious wisdom can always enter into civil discussions, but should do so by offering advice and guidance to decision makers, be they senators or voters, not by the recitation of semi-religious platitudes at public meetings. Religious services and ceremonies belong among communities of believers, where anyone can decide to attend or not as their conscience dictates, and they are free to express their beliefs without worry of crossing non-sectarian boundries. The founding fathers and their interpretors were wiser than many today credit; the ‘separation of church and state’ sometimes reviled by the religious in American politics is as much about the protection of religion as it is about protection from religion.