Russell Moore’s Bad Arguments on Legislative Prayer


Russell Moore is the guy who replaced Richard Land as the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He’s generally seen as a moderating force who is trying to pull the SBC back from being so overtly political. But he’s making the same bad arguments, and adding one atrocious new one, on the issue of legislative prayer.

President Obama and religious conservatives are rarely on the same side of the culture wars. But a case now headed to the Supreme Court has forced a sliver of consensus between the White House and right-leaning people of faith on — of all things — praying in public, in Jesus’ name. Perhaps this little truce in the red state/blue state divide can give Americans of all faiths, and no faith, an opportunity to think about why our pluralistic society is better off with uncensored, unscripted public prayers.

But this is not about “praying in public.” People can and do pray in public all over the country, every single day. They even do so on public property, in national parks and on courthouse grounds during rallies and protests. And no one complains about it or tries to stop them, not even the ACLU or the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The religious right’s use of phrases like “religion in the public square” is fundamentally dishonest. At issue is not the expression of religion in public, it’s the government acting in an official capacity to set aside time specifically for Christian prayers.

But that caricature of a theocracy-seeking evangelicalism, hell-bent on establishing official up-to-code prayers everywhere “in Jesus’ name” — as easy as it is — doesn’t line up with reality, anyway. Conservative evangelicals don’t want government support for our faith, because we believe God created all consciences free and a state-coerced act of worship isn’t acceptable to God. Moreover, we believe the gospel isn’t in need of state endorsement or assistance. Wall Street may need government bailouts but the Damascus Road never does.

Pretty words, but completely meaningless. The fact is that local boards and state legislatures who hold prayers to open their meetings, even if they use some sort of open system where any religious group in the community can get a spot to say their prayers, know full well that 99% of the time those prayers are going to be Christian. What they are demanding is that a government body set aside time for them to engage in their religious exercises while everyone else has to either participate or watch. And the moment a non-Christian is picked to offer an invocation, you hear howls of outrage. This is pure Christian privilege — we have the right to force you to listen to or participate in our prayers whether you like it or not.

But that’s precisely the point. A prayer, by definition, isn’t a speech made to a public audience but is instead a petition made to a higher Being. For the government to censor such prayers is to turn the government into a theological referee, and would, in fact, establish a state religion: a state religion of generic American civil religious mush that assumes all religions are ultimately the same anyway.

Utter nonsense. Not setting aside time at a meeting of a government body does not “censor prayer.” There are thousands of government meetings every day that don’t begin with a prayer, but no one is being censored. I agree with Moore that this distinction between “sectarian” prayers and non-sectarian ones that the courts have developed is meaningless gibberish, and even dangerous for the reasons he cites (it puts the government in the business of deciding which prayers can be said and which cannot; in reality, none should be said in that setting, ever).

Comments

  1. Larry says

    What’s the difference between prayer and the GOP-led House of Representatives?

    Neither one of them do a damn thing.

  2. gshelley says

    If not setting aside time for prayer “censors prayer”, wouldn’t only setting aside 5 minutes do the same for those people who wanted to pray 10 minutes? Or putting any sort of time limit on it?

  3. Sastra says

    A prayer, by definition, isn’t a speech made to a public audience but is instead a petition made to a higher Being.

    Great! Then please stop insisting that the government needs to provide you with a public platform and captive audience or you’re “not being allowed to pray.”

  4. busterggi says

    Moore clearly is completely unaware of his ilk or lying – I know where I’d bet my money.

  5. briandavis says

    But that’s precisely the point. A prayer, by definition, isn’t a speech made to a public audience but is instead a petition made to a higher Being.

    How strange then that they always seem to feel the need to use the public address system.

    I’m surprised that no one has tried to use open meeting regulations to justify public prayers. IANAL, but I believe California law would frown on the majority of a city council or school board meeting privately before their public meetings. They might be able to make the argument that if they want to meet as a group for prayer before getting down to business, then they are required by law to do it in public session.

  6. Michael Heath says

    Russell Moore states:

    . . . that caricature of a theocracy-seeking evangelicalism, hell-bent on establishing official up-to-code prayers everywhere “in Jesus’ name” — as easy as it is — doesn’t line up with reality, anyway. Conservative evangelicals don’t want government support for our faith, because we believe God created all consciences free and a state-coerced act of worship isn’t acceptable to God. Moreover, we believe the gospel isn’t in need of state endorsement or assistance. Wall Street may need government bailouts but the Damascus Road never does.

    busterggi writes:

    Moore clearly is completely unaware of his ilk or lying – I know where I’d bet my money.

    I suggest not underestimating people who succumb to denialism and authoritarian thinking. What Mr. Moore claims here is common rhetoric told amongst the Christianists to each other. I think many of them actually believe this is true, in spite of subsequently arguing something contrary if that contrarian argument promotes the cause of Christianism in that other moment.

  7. hunter says

    “. . . that assumes all religions are ultimately the same anyway.”

    In every way that matters, they are.

  8. jakc says

    Of course its a public event, and with state legislatures increasingly streaming their sessions, viewed by lots of people The courts aren’t likely to interfere with legislatures though, and you aren’t going to find legislators willing to end the practice.

Leave a Reply