Recently, our church planter, working in Tracy, California emailed me a message that he had been invited to begin the city council meeting with
prayer an “invocation.” He also mentioned a ruling that was to be voted on in the same meeting to require that all “invocations” must be non-sectarian.
Is it just me or does this idea seem like utter non-sense? Why bother? What on earth could possibly be the point to even having such a thing? To help me get my mind around the idea, I looked up the definitions of the words (Bartleby.com):
Prayer: A reverent petition made to God, a god, or another object of worship.
Invocation: 1. The act or an instance of invoking, especially an appeal to a higher power for assistance. 2. A prayer or other formula used in invoking, as at the opening of a religious service. (to assist in this, I also looked up “invoke”: 1. To call on (a higher power) for assistance, support, or inspiration)
Sectarian: 1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of a sect. 2. Adhering or confined to the dogmatic limits of a sect or denomination; partisan.
So, it would seem that a “non-sectarian invocation” is a generic appeal, to a generic something, to do some generic something on behalf of the city council…unless your an atheist, in which case, you are generically out of luck. So I decided that I would try to write a non-sectarian invocation (by excluding the offending terms):
“Dear heavenly one that has a son who was murdered so that we could have freedom, we ask that you would forgive us for our generic ideals that seek the glorification of our institutions and dreams rather than the reconciliation that you desire between yourself and those who have suppressed the idea that you exist. We know that it was once acceptable to actually speak of you, but we no longer want to offend anyone who might think that you are something or someone other than you are, and our government only endorses its idea of religious expression. So if you don’t mind, we won’t actually mention who you are, but we really want to ask you to help us while we try to have this meeting on the behalf of a bunch of people who might (or might not) actually believe in you for real.”
Well…that might be too specific as well…I’ll try again: “Dear whatever or whoever might be out there or not, we ask that you would do something, whatever it is that you do, or don’t do, for this group…thanks…I think.”
Nope…it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Really, is there any belief system generic enough to comply with such an idea, while still seriously thinking that there is an actual point in the effort? I suppose it is possible, in our mixed up world, but honestly, why bother? Isn’t this idea ultimately offensive to any belief system other than secularism?
Perhaps the city council is seeking to promote tolerance, but making everything generic doesn’t actually accomplish this goal. How does it make sense to try to promote tolerance by masking differences? If we require everyone to drive a white car, what is the point of saying that we tolerate red ones? What really happens is that this ends up being a form of religious discrimination, masquerading as religious “tolerance.” Unless you comply with the state’s approved generic (secular) beliefs, then you aren’t allowed to express your beliefs in the City Council. How does this accurately represent the religious views of the City?
So it can’t really be about “tolerance.” Actually, this ruling is connected to the idea that any “invocation” that isn’t sufficiently generic will mean that the city council is somehow endorsing a religion, thus violating the “separation between church and state.” (a much misunderstood idea, to be sure) The only problem with this thinking is that instead of refusing to endorse any particular religion, they are actually only endorsing one generic, state sponsored religion. Rather than allowing for the free expression of each individual belief system’s distinct views, they are required to conform to the city council’s religious beliefs, generic though they may be.
If the Tracy city council truly represents its constituents, shouldn’t their meetings actually represent the religious makeup of the city? How can they accurately reflect the views of their citizens by endorsing a state-sponsored generic religious expression? If the council really wants to censor a private citizen’s public expression of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitution, then they should abolish the practice entirely and not offer the farce of a generic invocation.
There is a huge difference between a government offering an endorsed prayer and a government allowing its citizens to exercise their individual freedom and diversity in prayer.
Prayer by an outside clergy person does not mean that the city council endorses that religion, especially if they also encourage diversity and seek to accurately reflect the religious makeup of their town. However, if the council attempts to endorse only the generic religious views of a mythical secular society, they end up becoming the narrow-minded sectarians themselves, protecting some generic religion that no one really believes.