Now I can’t really claim any expertise in the appropriate application of the Constitution’s establishment clause, but as a supporter and critic of secularism, I do have my sympathies for certain directions in its application. And so I find the court right in its determination here.
The case concerns efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to control the content of a prayer given at a Memorial Day event at Houston National Cemetery. Reverend Scott Rainey has twice given a prayer at the event sponsored by the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston, but this year the VA requested to see the prayer Rainey was giving in advance of the ceremony. The director of the cemetery objected to the prayer, which included the Lord’s Prayer and ended by giving thanks to Jesus Christ, on the grounds that it was “specific to one belief.” Upon being asked to keep his prayer “general” and “nondenominational,” Rainey filed suit. A judge has granted Rainey a temporary restraining order that prevents the VA from interfering with Rainey’s prayer on Monday, effectively deciding the case in Rainey’s favor.
The grounds for the VA’s objections are fairly clear – a) while the ceremony is being sponsored by a private trade organization, the Houston National Cemetery is a public space, and a federal one no less, and therefore resolutely secular, and b) while the prayer and the ceremony are clearly intended to honor all the dead, not all soldiers are Christian, and the families and intimates of those non-Christian dead would rightfully feel those they hold in remembrance somewhat excluded from the full honor the ceremony confers. Rainey’s objection is likewise clear: for him the notion that his prayer would not end in an evocation of thanks to Jesus is somewhat inconceivable. It’s the mention of Jesus, one might say, in Rainey’s case that makes it a prayer.
Secularism or freedoms need not be a zero-sum game. Freedoms for and from religion when expressed need not mean that someone else has less of it him or herself. But in this case there does seem to be a conflict between the rights of those who honor and remember the non-Christian soldiers buried at Houston and Rainey’s right to express himself according to the dictates of his conscience. I think Rainey’s rights trump here because of a limited success, we might say, of secularism. Honoring the dead has few secular analogues; cross-culturally the behavior is fundamentally religious. Religion and its expressions are inherently sectarian. To a certain extent it’s pleasing to believe that there are certain basic spiritual beliefs and practices that we all share and that could form a basis for a “general” and “nondenominational” service, but common grounds only exist where previous accommodations to the religions of other cultures with which one comes into account have been made – and of course to religions that bear strong family resemblances. Protestant Christianity finds that it can tolerate accommodations to Catholic and to Jewish faiths at increasing degrees of attenuation. Muslim, sure. Hindu faith? Buddhist? Animist? Atheist? Here our notions of religious practice begin to break down as we attempt to conceive how those accommodations might take place. Philosophically it is possible to connect Hindu and Christian godheads in terms of a variety of shared characteristics, but approaches to prayer, honoring the dead, etc., don’t have close analogs.* And with Buddhism we continue further out.
But I’m threatening to digress too far. One has to respect the wishes of the Houston community to have some event honoring the dead, that event will require something marked explicitly as religious, and the sectarian nature of that is inescapable. For Rainey to offer a prayer, that prayer must mention Jesus, and without it the necessarily religious orientation of the effort becomes lost. In the past I think we’ve tended to assume that gestures toward inclusiveness and toleration are sufficient to produce a fully ecumenical and inoffensive spiritual observance, but in truth civic ceremonies in the U.S. that incorporate a religious element are thoroughly Protestant, as that is the religion in which the kinds of civic religious gestures we’re accustomed to make actual sense. Though most ministers can eliminate mention of a specific deity in order to offer a prayer that grasps at some form of inclusiveness, the gesture is civil and political and not religious, even if the gesture is kindly offered and sincere. The matrix of behavior and confessional belief is oriented toward a broad but still fairly specific sectarian practice.
While the history of the application of the establishment clause over the twentieth century has tended to favor exclusion of any religious expression if it would mean or even suggest the exclusion of alternate expressions, lately we seem to be entering into a period where the judicial system seems to willing to allow a more robust expression of faith within the public sphere. Perhaps its a sign of a degree of comfort in our pluralism and increasing cosmopolitanism that perhaps a century ago was bit more fraught and cautious, or perhaps it’s a growing understanding of the limits of secularism in public life mean in part that dictates of conscience cannot be easily shed when one acts in public. And it may be that I’m not seeing the situation clearly, as I confess that this isn’t based on any research or privileged point of view. In any case, I tend to be in favor of a more robust understanding of these freedoms to allow a larger number of people – not just those with a cultural majority or a weightier history of traditional behaviors in and about the public arenas – to operate freely with full expression of the dictates of conscience.
But that isn’t to say that Rainey or anyone is fully a prisoner of tradition or these dictates of conscience, or that Rainey’s prayer as conceived is the only possible outcome. A Houston-area Rabbi interviewed by the Houston Chronicle offered Rainey support: “I do believe the government doesn’t have the right to tell him what he can and cannot do,” he said. But then continued to say that he hopes Rainey realizes that Rainey’s prayer seems unaware and insensitive to the fact that not all the war dead were Christian. The unstated implication here is that the Rabbi recognizes Rainey’s freedom to craft the prayer according to his religious principles, but that accommodation to others not included within this specific religious orientation and behavior would be the decent thing to do. This is why we have secularism, but this is also where the categorical nature of secularism’s refusal to allow religious particularity robs us of a fully workable solution.
Workable or not, whatever form these accommodations take, they’re not bound to be a satisfying and inclusive to those representing the outlier religious practices as having a stronger stake in the ceremony themselves would be, but neither I believe is the convention of pretending that there is a universal religious observance that is embracing of all equally. Certainly these ecumenical observances don’t include atheists like me. And that’s an accommodation to an alternate belief and behavioral practice that I’d like to see more often.
* I have attended a service that worshiped the Hindu triune godhead of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva using a theology drawn explicitly from the Upanishads and in a manner very much modeled after a Unitarian Christian service. The entire effort was both familiar and a bit off-putting. There isn’t, for one thing, an actual history of worship of the three as a group, nor Brahma at all, as that linking is a purely theological, philosophical, and speculative – intellectual, let’s say. Which made it possible, I imagine to find a similar intellectualized Christian variant in which to locate forms to create the worship. Those in attendance seemed an even mix of South Asian and not, so perhaps the congregation was as hybridized as the worship.