Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate opened its session for the day with a prayer. That’s nothing unusual; it always opens with prayer. The difference was that the leader of the daily invocation was a Hindu chaplain. It was a Hindu prayer.
Congress, consisting of two elected bodies that are charged with passing the laws of this nation, probably shouldn’t be opening its sessions with a prayer because it comes very close to violating one of the primary tenets on which our country was founded, separation of church and state.
However, it has been decided by those who know more than I that, as an autonomous body, the Senate and the House of Representatives have the right to conduct business according to the rules they, themselves, decide on. And if the membership agrees that an opening prayer is in order, then there’s not much anyone can do about it.
But, just as a judge ruled last year with regards to Indiana’s General Assembly, prayers in open session should always be ecumenical, favoring no particular religion over another, if the U.S. Senate insists on opening its sessions with a prayer, then those prayers should also be representative of all faiths.
But, alas, the right-wing component of the Christian religion doesn’t see it that way. While the Hindu chaplain was saying his prayer, a group of protesters disrupted him, calling his prayer an abomination and chanting slogans like, “There’s only one true God.”
The group was arrested and charged with causing a disturbance. But the demonstration epitomizes the intolerance that is deeply ingrained in the religious right movement in this country.
To many of them, and I know this because some of them have told me, the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendments simply means the freedom to choose whichever evangelical Christian denomination one wishes to belong to. It doesn’t mean, they say, the right to select other “heathen” religions or, gulp, no religion at all.
But America is an eclectic nation, inhabited by individuals of every conceivable religious faith, including Hindu, Buddhist, Islam, Shinto, Native American religions, and Christianity. About 15 percent of us profess no religion at all. I belong to that 15 percent.
Having no religion doesn’t necessarily mean a disbelief in God. Only about five percent of Americans confess to being true atheists. The rest of the non-religious crowd is either agnostic, like me, or believe in a spirituality that doesn’t fit into any organized religion.
If the Senate wishes to open its sessions with a prayer, then it should do so as the representative body of all Americans, not just the Christian ones. Prayers should either be non-denominational, or every religion should have the opportunity to participate on a rotating basis.
That’s what the Senate seems to be doing, but they need to be left alone by the zealots who believe that their faith, and theirs alone, is the right one. That is, of course, their right to believe such nonsense. And I don’t have a problem with people’s beliefs per se. I do, however, have a big problem when they go beyond considering their religion a belief system and start viewing it as absolute truth to the disparity of all other belief systems.
Nobody has that much knowledge about God. In fact, the real truth is, nobody has any knowledge whatsoever about God; they only think they do. That’s why they call it faith.
It was Bertrand Russell who said, “I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong.” If only everyone thought the same way, there would be far less religious intolerance in the world.