Recently it was reported that area ministers are being excluded from offering a prayer at the opening of Tulsa City Council meetings if their prayers fail to conform to the form and content prescribed by a local religious group.
Rev. Danny Lynchard, Chief Chaplain of the Tulsa Police and Fire Chaplaincy Corps and the pastor of Fisher Baptist Church west of Sand Springs, schedules a rotation of local religious leaders to offer a prayer at the opening of each Tulsa City Council meeting. In the absence of someone to voice a prayer, the meeting begins with a moment of silence.
(Lynchard, like everyone on the Chaplaincy Corps, is an unpaid volunteer.)
According to news reports, it's Lynchard who is imposing this doctrinal standard. Any minister whose prayer fails to conform is "removed from the rotation."
The ironic thing is that this religious conformity is being imposed in the name of religious tolerance and diversity. And it has been done without the knowledge or approval of the City Council.
The "unpardonable sin," as it were, is to pray in the name of Jesus.
It is not clear whether the banished clergymen were made aware of the connection between their offensive words and their exclusion from the prayer rotation.
This policy was put in place at the urging of Karl Sniderman, described by the daily paper as a board member of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance and a member of the Humanist Association of Tulsa.
Sniderman's goal seems to be to have religious leaders from a wide variety of religious beliefs come before the council to offer one homogenous, bland, generic sort of prayer.
Humanists with a capital "H" deny the supernatural. The HAT website says, "We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside of nature for salvation."
It's hard to figure how someone with no faith in the supernatural becomes a board member of an "interfaith alliance." Or how someone who doesn't believe in prayer wields such influence over how public prayer is conducted at City Council meetings--more influence than the city councilors, evidently.
This is not the first time this issue has come up. On December 17, on 1170 KFAQ, attorney Bill Kumpe recalled a similar controversy in 2000, when he "represented a police chaplain who was in hot water for praying in Jesus' name before the council."
Rev. Ken Farnham, filling in for a few weeks that June, offered the opening prayer in Jesus' name his first two weeks before the council. He said at the time that he had been given a city brochure with guidelines on what phrases were generic and therefore acceptable for public prayer.
Kumpe points out that such a policy amounts to government specifying the content of prayers. "We have a thing called the establishment clause in our constitution which says that the government cannot tell us how to worship our God or how to pray to him." He cited the Supreme Court's ruling in Engel v. Vitale (1962), in which the court struck down a generic school prayer specified by the New York state legislature. "The bottom line is you cannot have government composing prayers and telling people how to pray them."
Even without a brochure, Lynchard's practice of dropping ministers whose prayers don't conform from the prayer rotation seems to amount to the same kind of unconstitutional government control over religious expression.
Constitutional issues aside, generic prayer in the name of inclusion and diversity actually excludes and suppresses diversity. Real diversity would be served by allowing a variety of clergyfolk to offer up prayers each according to the dictates of his or her conscience.
Each person listening could choose to agree and pray along with the prayer, to offer a silent prayer according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, or to maintain a respectful silence for the brief duration of the invocation. How hard is that?
If a prayer is going to be offered for the sake of our city and its leaders, I'd rather have the one praying do so as fervently and sincerely as he would offer a prayer for his own family, in the way that he believes valid and acceptable to the one to whom he prays, even if his way of prayer is not mine.
If a Pastafarian prelate were to offer an invocation, I would expect him to implore the Flying Spaghetti Monster to stretch forth his Noodly Appendage of Blessing upon our fair city. (And all the people said, "Ramen.")
Prayer is not merely an exercise in mumbling lofty words. Although the word is rarely used in this way any more, "to pray" can mean to make a request of anyone in a position to help you.
In the religious sense of the word, prayer is beseeching a powerful supernatural being--in monotheistic religions, the All-Powerful Supernatural Being--for help, for mercy, for the necessities of life, for protection, for wisdom.
When you're making a request to a powerful leader or official, you follow a certain protocol to ensure that your petition is not rejected out of hand. Most religions teach their adherents to approach the deity in a certain way in order to receive a hearing and to earn the deity's favor.
Muslims are taught to perform certain washings before prayer, to face the Kaaba in Mecca, and to surround their personal petitions within a certain form of words.
A polytheistic pagan may have a different method for every deity he must petition and propitiate--incense for one, sprinkling of blood for another, an offering of fruits and vegetables for yet another, with certain verbiage to invoke each god or goddess.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes advises care and deliberation when approaching God in prayer:
"Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few."
Christians, whether Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant, pray in the name of Jesus because He told us to. We believe that Jesus is the mediator between sinful humans and a holy God. It is through Him and Him alone that we can approach God's throne with confidence, "that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Jesus promised His followers, "Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you."
In place of the ablutions and oblations of other faiths, Christians believe that we can approach a holy God because of the purity of Jesus and His sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus' name is central to the notion of Christian prayer.
A policy that genericizes prayer is not religiously neutral. It advances a system of belief that finds adherents in many different Christian denominations -- particularly in the mainline Protestant churches--and in other religious traditions.
This system of belief posits that God, if He exists, isn't actively involved in human affairs. Prayer may serve some psychological or social need, but it isn't real communication with a power beyond ourselves. It is this religion that a policy of generic prayer acknowledges as our official faith.
We've seen the same homogenization in the mashing together of winter-time holidays with very different purposes and meanings into a vanilla something someone has labeled Hanuramakwanzamas.
Wouldn't it be more exciting to have everyone celebrating their own holiday and their own traditions to the fullest extent, rather than dumbing everything down into generic Winter Holidays?
Now that they're aware of this policy that has been adopted and enforced without their input, I would hope that the City Council will pass some sort of resolution affirming the freedom of each person who offers an invocation at Council sessions to do so as he or she sees fit.
Based on some of their public comments, I expect that will happen.
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