Friday, July 13, 2007

Senate Anti-Hindu Hecklers Are No More Intolerant Than Justice Scalia

Yesterday Rajan Zed became the first Hindu clergyman to offer the official morning prayer in the U.S. Senate, but not before he was interrupted by three Christian protesters from the gallery, who objected to what they called an "abomination." (Washington Post story, via AP, here. NY Times story, via Reuters, here.) According to the AP story: "For several days, the Mississippi-based American Family Association has urged its members to object to the prayer because Zed would be "seeking the invocation of a non-monotheistic god." (The AFA has posted a complete audio of the prayer and the interruptions on its website, available here.)

As one would expect, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (and no doubt other groups), disapproved of the disruption. The group's executive director, Barry Lynn, condemned the "intolerance of many religious right activists. They say they want more religion in the public square, but it's clear they mean only their religion."

It's worth noting, if only as an aside, that Zed's bland prayer was in fact consistent with monotheism. This was no offering to Vishnu, Shiva or Krishna. Zed said: "We meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds." As the rest of the audio confirms, no minister, priest, rabbi, or imam would be kicked out of the monotheism club for offering such a prayer. One might therefore conclude that the protesters objected to the fact that a Hindu was praying on their behalf, quite apart from the prayer's content. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt, since they probably did not know in advance whether Zed would take the ecumenical route or ask for the blessings of Ganesha AND Hanuman.

So, is it intolerant to proclaim that tolerance of other faiths does not extend to polytheists? Well, of course it is. But the American Family Association is not alone in this tolerance-only-for-faiths-enough-like-ours view. Here is Justice Scalia (joined on this point by the late Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas) in McCreary County v. ACLU, responding in that 2005 case to the majority's argument that the display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses violated the Establishment Clause because, among other things, the practice endorsed monotheism:
The Court thinks it “surpris[ing]” and “truly remarkable” to believe that “the deity the Framers had in mind” (presumably in all the instances of invocation of the deity I have cited) “was the God of monotheism.” This reaction would be more comprehensible if the Court could suggest what other God (in the singular, and with a capital G) there is, other than “the God of monotheism.” This is not necessarily the Christian God (though if it were, one would expect Christ regularly to be invoked, which He is not); but it is inescapably the God of monotheism.
Justice Scalia has also written, with respect to official worship of that God of monotheism, as follows (in 1992, dissenting in Lee v. Weisman, which invalidated an official public high school graduation prayer):
The Founders of our Republic knew the fearsome potential of sectarian religious belief to generate civil dissension and civil strife. And they also knew that nothing, absolutely nothing, is so inclined to foster among religious believers of various faiths a toleration-no, an affection-for one another than voluntarily joining in prayer together, to the God whom they all worship and seek.
Unless, that is, you happen to worship no God or multiple ones. In that case, affection be damned.

So fear not, you monotheists who worry that Hinduism may become the official religion of the United States: You have at least two votes (and by now probably four votes) on the Supreme Court for making this an officially monotheist country in which polytheists and atheists are not directly persecuted but are excluded from participation in public rituals that monotheists lead and enjoy.

23 comments:

nb916 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil H. Buchanan said...

" ... they probably did not know in advance whether Zed would take the ecumenical route or ask for the blessings of Ganesha AND Hanuman."

What if he had prayed "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost"?

Michael C. Dorf said...

As Neil's question implies, some Protestants (few these days but many more in the past) have regarded Catholics as not true monotheists because of the doctrine of the trinity. Some Protestants and Muslims also regarded Catholics as idol worshipers because of the use of religious iconography, and before the Catholic/Protestant split in Western Europe, for a time the Catholic Church regarded the Eastern Orthodox Church as having fallen into idol worship for much the same reason. All this shows the instability of the category of "nonsectarian" prayer. Such prayer only looks nonsectarian to those who belong to sects that find it unobjectionable.

egarber said...

The notion of "limited government" drives so much discourse on the Right, but somehow the concept is largely abandoned when it comes to church / state matters.

One crime (imo) is that folks on that side will cite James Madison to support their advocacy of low-level theocracy.

If you read Madison, his view of religious liberty is pure limited government -- in that the state isn't allowed to extend its influence into the sacred realm of faith. He wrote that "religion is wholly beyond the cognizance of government". That's not some narrow commentary that allows latitude for government meddling; it's a broad and bold philosophical statement.

Of course, a further irony is that Madison specifically wrote against official prayers in the nation's legislative chambers, arguing that they violate the First Amendment.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Getting to the heart of the matter, here is an old stand-up joke from the oddball comic Emo Phillips:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you christian or buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said,"Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?" He said, "Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?" He said,"Reformed Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.

Paul said...

For whatever it is worth, I believe Hinduism is monotheistic. They have one god and many manifestations of that god.

Kenji said...

Given that monotheism is inherently more rigid than polytheism, I don't find this result to be that troubling. A polytheist is more able to treat a monotheistic god as a version, manifestation, etc., of his or her gods. Given that you can't make all groups happy with respect to this issue, I'm willing to settle with a utilitarian solution (i.e., side with the monotheists), as long as there is no persecution of atheists and polytheists (which even the most intolerant monotheists in this country generally do not advocate).

egarber said...

From the Reuters story:

Capitol police said two women and one man were arrested and charged with causing a disruption in the public gallery of the Senate. The three started shouting when guest Chaplain Rajan Zed, a Hindu from Nevada, began his prayer.

I almost think we'll start hearing that the protesters' religious liberty rights were violated here. That of course would be completely oddball, but I might accept bets that it could happen :)

I wonder what such an appeal might look like if RFRA was still around -- vs. these folks being charged under a generally applicable law. Still seems ridiculous, since it's easily a compelling interest to keep the Senate in order, I would think. (I guess RFRA might still be alive in this context, since theoretically the law in question falls within the scope of federal action -- setting DC rules -- not the states via the 14th).

In any case, if somebody were to make such a claim, they'd really be making the case to get rid of Congressional prayers altogether. So folks on the Right who defend the protestors should be careful what they wish for :)

egarber said...

Given that you can't make all groups happy with respect to this issue, I'm willing to settle with a utilitarian solution (i.e., side with the monotheists),

But I think that is part of Madison's point. Because you "can't make all groups happy with respect" to how the government should establish religion, it's better to just limit the state to its smaller sphere and keep it out altogether -- thus ENLARGING religious liberty and freedom for everybody.

Kenji said...

egarber:

"But I think that is part of Madison's point. Because you "can't make all groups happy with respect" to how the government should establish religion, it's better to just limit the state to its smaller sphere and keep it out altogether -- thus ENLARGING religious liberty and freedom for everybody."

Yes, I like this quite a bit, but that's not really a realistic option on the table.

Scott said...

It's somewhat unfair to criticize Justice Scalia as intolerant based on these comments. His point was simply that, as evidence of constitutional meaning, we should look to public invocations of "God" throughout our history, which suggest that the Establishment Clause does not bar public acknowledgment of a monotheistic god. Perhaps that's wrong, but it doesn't seem to imply that Justice Scalia is himself "intolerant." In any event, I'm not sure why we're focusing on the protesters' beliefs rather than the appropriateness of the means they chose to express those beliefs.

PG said...

In any event, I'm not sure why we're focusing on the protesters' beliefs rather than the appropriateness of the means they chose to express those beliefs.

I think the means they chose indicate something about the content of the belief. If Pope Benedict thinks all the rest of y'all are going to hell, he's welcome to pronounce on that in his position as head of the Roman Catholic Church, and that indicates it to be a sectarian belief about the nature of the Church. If Pope Benedict instead invades government buildings to make his pronouncements, that indicates the belief to be more far reaching.

Why isn't it a realistic option for government not to involve itself in religion? Until Friday, the federal government had managed to keep itself out of my family's religion, and we had done the same for the federal government. I'm actually sorry in a way to see Hindus giving the Senate prayer, because inevitably the prayer will be one of the sort Zed gave -- not really a Hindu prayer, just one given by a man who calls himself a Hindu. I don't understand why there is this insistence on public exhibitions of piety (cue Matthew 6:5...), ones that are, as Prof. Dorf noted, very bland and usually bled dry of all real spiritual passion. If the lawmakers feel the need for heavenly assistance, let them pray at home, as my mother had us do whenever we had to take a test that day.

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