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.