Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We Still Pray

In this age of personal statement by bumper sticker, I frequently see the message “We Still Pray” on the back of cars in front of me. Actually, I am glad that the folks in that car apparently do so. God has given us so many forms in which to engage in prayer, meditation, or just quiet contemplation, the more people engage in prayer in their own way is no doubt to our collective benefit.

The thing I don’t quite understand is why someone feels the need to tell me that they do so. Did someone tell them they could not pray anymore? If it is some form of “I do it, maybe you’d like to do the same,” perhaps God doesn’t mind a little recruitment on his/her behalf. But more often than not, I suspect it is offered more as a political statement than a spiritual one. In reaction to a perceived threat from the secular world that prayer, and those who do so, are under attack. This brings us to a political theme of the last 30-odd years of legal decisions against prayer in the public venues (e.g. public schools, government functions, and public-funded recreational activities).

I confess I am strongly on the side of very hard lines of separation regarding legally-sponsored spiritual and religious activities in publicly-funded venues. Certainly not because I am opposed to spiritual activity and expression by people. But when you do those activities in publicly-funded (secular) places, the problem is --- whose spirituality will you use? Whose religious ritual and dogma shall be used by a collective group of dissimilar taxpayers?

The U.S. is the most mixed cultured country in the world. It has been so since our beginnings ever since religious and economic pilgrims from a multitude of European countries and religions first encountered the Native Americans already here. We have certainly had our difficulties throughout our history in assimilating and respecting all of these forms and cultures, but in our own erratic way we’ve continued to generally do pretty well with it over time. Yet we also still have many pockets of isolated culturally homogeneous areas, such as in my current home here in western North Carolina.

Some groups today insist on trying to define America as a “Christian nation,” yet nowhere do I see that codified in any of our founding documents. And given all the different religious forms that claim the mantel of Christian, and the track record of argument (if not violence) that has occurred within that label, I can hardly see how that standard can provide a unifying framework for religious expression in America. As we also watch non-Christian religions growing in number in the U.S., the idea that one spiritual language, one religious practice, one faith can be made either universal or a yardstick implodes on its own improbability.

No, the founding fathers were, as usual, highly insightful in understanding what was needed for this country to truly be free, united and welcoming. Make every possible opportunity for people to find and express their faith, in the company of like-minded spiritual worshipers, in their homes and those places dedicated to worship. Given its abysmal track record, leave the state out of this.

In the secular world of tax-supported institutions, my dollars are equal to your dollars. So in an open and public setting, will your prayer be used, or mine? Will we say the Catholic Lord’s Prayer or the Protestant version? Will we bow in Christian prayer, meditate in Buddhist silence, close down the post office for Yom Kippur, or fast together in the school cafeteria for Ramadan? Prayer has not been forbidden; where one might pray, and your ability to tell me how to pray, has correctly been limited. The religious majority today could well be the religious minority of tomorrow. Then whose prayer will we use?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Freedom of Speech Defended

Columbia University recently invited Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on its campus and submit to a Q/A session. For this, the University has taken a lot of flack in conservative quarters for giving Ahmadinejad a public forum from which to speak. I, however, was delighted that the invitation was extended. Certainly not because I am any fan of Ahmadinejad and his positions. Rather, I do think he is an ill-informed political ignorant given what he has said are his beliefs and his views of the world that surrounds him. (Then again, we fail to acknowledge that we are generally quite similarly ignorant of the world, belief systems and cultural history from which he comes.) But by extending this invitation, we demonstrated to him (and the citizens of Iran and the world) what freedom of speech really means in this country, versus in Iran; we created the opportunity to Q/A a national leader in an open, non-staged debate (something our U.S. President has shown no willingness to do), versus in Iran; and we allowed that national leader the opportunity to make his case for his beliefs, or to fail, through civil discourse, versus in Iran. And in this instance, Ahmadinejad managed to fail miserably to convince, almost to the point of the laughable.

It is a shame that this important example of democratic free speech was lessened by the self-serving, uncivil and rude introduction of Ahmadinejad given by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. It was, nevertheless, an otherwise “America at its best” moment: our willingness and ability to let hate and ignorance fail on its own through the light of the spotlight rather than exist in isolated darkness. Hard as it may be at times, requiring the courage of our willingness to air that with which we disagree, it is still what we are to be about: the faith that extremes will ultimately be exposed for what they are, and that truth ultimately wins out. Or, as a quote stated that I read in an unlikely place, “If we don’t protect freedom of speech, we’ll never know who the idiots are.” The reality is that we are never able to create an effective dialog, or reach a negotiated conclusion, with another individual until we first at least understand what that person thinks, and why she/he thinks it, no matter how foreign those may be to our own background and thought process. We must first listen before we speak. Only from that basis can effective dialog begin.