Sticks, Stones, and Prayer Mats

October 9, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

Many years ago, a fellow employee and I got into political and philosophic discourse weekly, sometimes daily. One of our basic disagreements had to do with abortion. She was Irish Catholic, and a very bright woman. Her position was consistent with her church. But she was not so dogmatic as to be incapable of engaging the debate without getting so defensive as to shut off her brain.

One day we both heard a news report about a statutory rape case in England. The girl–14–was pregnant. The judge ordered her to have an abortion. The circumstances were bizarre and extreme. Naturally, though, the debate at work that day was about abortion.

“I suppose,” she said to me, “you agree with the judge’s order.”

“No, I don’t,” I said. She blinked, dismayed, and asked why. “Because it’s supposed to be a matter of choice, for Pete’s sake. Choice. Why is it so hard for you to get that? It’s not the court’s decision, it’s her decision, whether to keep it or get rid of it.”

She had a hard time with that–with both aspects. The idea of abortion and my support of a woman’s right to keep her fetus.

An earlier post elicited some responses dealing with the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, one of which asserted that there is no explicit statement in the Constitution separating church and state. As far as it goes, no, there isn’t, but the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment lays a logical basis for first recognizing that government and religion should not mingle with each and therefore, as experience over time presents issues to be argued in the courts, gives rise to a clear body of reasonable discourse that shows us the pitfalls of such a commingling. We may in some instances be doing this badly, but the principle ought to be beyond question.

Currently the ACLU is arguing a case in support of Muslims in public schools who have been denied the right to pray. In an age when christians argue repeatedly and aggressively for school prayer, which the ACLU consistently fights against, this may seem paradoxical.

But it’s not. It’s individual choice at issue, not a group thing. And that’s the difference.

It has been pointed out since the school prayer issue has been around that no one can prevent a student from praying in public school. Privately, silently, it’s impossible to stop it. Obviously, if one’s religion demands a physical process, as in Islam, such silence becomes problematic. But I think I would support the right of a student–a christian student–to get out of a desk and kneel in order to pray. That’s who the student is, it is their right, and becomes their personal choice. I’m sure teachers and school administrators would seek to stop the student under the misguided assumption that allowing it would be promoting religion. That’s a cowardly, myopic way to read the issue, but it is central to the problem of individual rights vs. Group dynamics in this country.

Many Catholic schools charge non Catholics more tuition for their children to attend. As this is a private institution it does not become a public issue, but there is something of the same principle at work, which is the denial of individual rights in the face of majority preferences.

What people do not seem to “get” is that very thing–individual rights–and that is striking in a country whose national mythology is based on exactly that.

What christian groups who press to have prayer in school want is not a sinecure for individual freedom, but a mandate to enforce conformity. Private, silent prayer is never enough–they want an advocacy position. They are consistent about this. When it is pointed out that students are not prevented from praying silently–as if that could be done–it is never sufficient to mollify the groups demanding the inclusion of “god in the classroom.” They want to right to demonstrate their ideology and push it on those who aren’t interested. A class prayer. It’s like the Pledge of Allegiance. And the result is often the same–those who refuse to participate have the choice of personal, private preference stripped, because in the face of the majority, they must make a public stand. They are de facto “outed” by their obvious refusal to participate. Or they are forced to behave hypocritically in order to fit in.

Why it should be necessary to explain this is beyond me.

It has been observed that not all christians are like this, that not all are “rabid, drooling idiots” but the media paints them all with the same brush. Admittedly, this is a problem. But it is not a problem solely with christians. They tend to do it to any religious group which is loudly represented by a faction that draws attention to its rabid, drooling idiocy, and this is unfortunate. But it is also a fact that politicians suffer the same treatment. Rational Republicans are having difficulty now because the G.O.P. is most loudly represented by the neocon/fundie faction. Democrats have long been cast as mush-headed liberals based on media reportage of the most egregiously mush-headed representatives. Businessmen get corralled into the same pen because of the Ken Lay’s who make the headlines.

If a group does not wish to have that association made, it should take steps to deny the idiots the privilege of using the label.

But how to do that? How do you assert that Pastor Hagee and Reverend Robertson are not, somehow, christians, when they profess affiliation with that creed?

The point, though, is that the factors which define them as frothing-at-the-mouth, rabid, drooling idiots have little or nothing to do with their religion. They simply use their religion as a basis from which to dictate behavior.

We do need a more sensible discourse in the media. But we also need more sensible audiences for said discourse. It may be a chicken-and-egg question, but the fact is that one should be ready to disavow anything which runs counter to one’s principles, especially when it is expressed by someone claiming to be of your group. I do not countenance stupidity just because it bears a label with which I normally have sympathy. I deny the stupidity and refuse to admit the one so afflicted speaks for me or has a right to use that label in my name.

The bleating of people who don’t “get” or don’t like personal choice is not confined to one or two groups. Everyone has a tendency to ally themselves with groups, and sometimes one has to make compromises to do it. The trick is to be aware when the group dynamic shifts so far that what is being represented is no longer something supportable by a concept of individual choice.

If christians are tired of fundamentalists representing them, they should forcefully take the label back and deny its use to those who abuse it. Easier said than done, I know, but there it is. Liberals should not allow conservatives to define them all by the example of a few numbskulls who in their own way are as rabid and drooling in their idiocy as any sawdust-circuit preacher who ever saved souls the first hour and then slept with the young girls the next, thinking, perhaps, that this is some kind of reward for bringing more people into the fold.

The fold, as it were, is nothing but a trap. Think outside the tent, no matter what you call yourself.

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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Education, Law, Media, Politics, Religion, Reproductive Rights

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (5)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    I like many things about this essay, and perhaps what I like the most is that Jason has brought together the two things that so many advocates of individual rights forget to unite: rights and responsibilities. It is not enough to just say we should all be free of legislation that impinges on our individual liberties; the balance of that equation is that we also have a duty to, as Jason says, "forcefully take the label back" when others distort the labels we apply to ourselves. Liberals, conservatives, Believers, athiests, etc., all are maligned by their opposition. The question is whether people will merely sit and complain, while demanding that their rights be respected, or whether they will put their time and effort into confronting their opposition and hacking down the facades that their opposition tries to build around them. If people don't value their beliefs enough to defend them from unfair attack, then who else will?

  2. Erika Price says:

    Unfortunately, the recent ACLU defense of Muslim prayer in schools has become yet another shoddy "proof" of Christian persecution. Nevermind their unrivaled majority status; because Christianity has the most prevalance in US culture, it incurs the most "attacks", and hence seems singled out, at least in the minds of evangelicals. The blind outrage that Christianity faces such "attacks" (against, say, school-wide, mandatory prayers) while Muslims get "special treatment" (ie, the choice to pray in school personally) keeps the offended Chrisitians from taking the time to recognize the enormous difference between the two situations.

  3. hogiemo says:

    There're some old saws that go kinda like this; "Never wrassle with a pig. You'll just get dirty, and the pig will like it!" "Never argue with a fool, folks won't know the difference".

    I've seen this so many times where one side draws the other into an argument, just so the one which starts it can fire up somebody to agree with them. Lakoff calls what the conservatives do as "framing" so that the debate is always on the terms and context which the cons choose. The cons have been doing that for a couple of decades and spent about $10 billion on it and which has coincided with their taking majorities in Congress and also winning the White House.

    The moral of the story is beware what bait you rise to, and make sure its the other side which is hooked. The left doesn't get it, and will keep on getting pasted even though the Republican scandals in government now far outstrip any in Nixon's and the Watergate era.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    As you’ve brought out in this post, you really can’t discuss group membership without touching on the universal human desire to appear like one is accomplishing something important when one is not actually doing anything at all. When one belongs to a group, one immediately gets credit for everything the group allegedly stands for. “We have accomplished all of these things over the centuries!” But the things, themselves, are often truly difficult to accomplish or even measure. Therefore, many religious and civic groups turn to recruiting instead of spreading real social harmony, helping the poor or taking steps to allow people to control their own pregnancies.

    Group prayer gives many believers warm and fuzzy feelings, regardless of whether it is heartfelt, ostentatious, rote, coerced or understandable. For many believers, this farcical version of prayer (making everyone in a public school stand up and say a rote prayer in unison) is a way to make the enforcers feel as though they are accomplishing the stated goals of their religion when they are not doing anything at all. What they are accomplishing is provoking a group display. Those who jump up and join in the group prayer with enthusiasm are those loyal to the enforcers. Those who do it without enthusiasm are the ones you need to keep an eye on. All public prayers are displays of loyalty. In my opinion, that is usually the only thing public prayers accomplish.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    "…When one belongs to a group, one immediately gets credit for everything the group allegedly stands for…."

    Perhaps this is why so many people enjoy spectator sports. They can all yell, "We won!" when, in fact, they merely paid (a lot of) money to watch other people win.

    "All public prayers are displays of loyalty. "

    Indeed they are displays of loyalty, not of faith. They merely masquerade as displays of faith. This is as true of rote prayers in churches as it is true of rote prayers in mosques. Whether the Believer is kneeling with the congregation before a Christian altar or prostrating on a prayer mat facing Mecca, the display is one of loyalty to the group and to the official hierarchy, like soldiers who salute their superior officers.

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