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OP-ED


Home > OP-ED > Inauguration Prayers



Title: Inauguration Prayers
Date: January 25, 2001

Alan Dershowitz must be awfully thin-skinned and insecure in his faith to be offended by prayers which invoke a Deity other than he recognizes. He is petulantly inflamed by the Invocation at the Presidential inauguration, which declared Jesus Christ as "our savior" and which blessed the Presidency in the name of "the Father, the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit". This, Dershowitz claims, excludes tens of millions who are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, agnostics, and atheists from the blessing. He thinks the prayers were divisive, sectarian, and inappropriate in our highly diverse society. Not only does Dershowitz feel offended and excluded, he believes that such prayers are unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment, since they were official sectarian prayers at an official government function.

No doubt any prayer would be offensive and exclusive to an atheist, but indulging such sensitivity would effectively give the non-believer a veto power over the free-expression rights of the believer. Surely that is not desirable nor is that the intent of the First Amendment. The President who is being inaugurated has a free expression right under the Constitution to have a prayer consistent with his faith to bless the beginning of his administration; the person giving the prayer has the right to utter it free of governmental censorship. This does not constitute an official governmental establishment of religion. I would expect a Christian minister who deeply believes in his faith to give a prayer grounded on that faith, and it would be only natural for him to refer to the foundation of that faith, Jesus, in the course of the prayer. That is one of the imperatives of the Christian faith. Why should I, a Jew, be offended or feel excluded that a Christian prays within the focus of his faith, or expect him to do otherwise? All religions have universalist and particularistic aspects reflected in their prayers, and we can all join in the universal aspects even as we may reject the particularistic views. If a Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, or Hindu, or one of any other faith were being inaugurated, I would expect an invocation in accordance with that faith and related to our common American heritage. Respect for religious diversity and the faiths of other people should shield a thinking person from sulky feelings of exclusion because of the particularistic aspects of the prayer. The President was inaugurated with his hand on the Bible, sacred, in varying degrees, to Christians, Jews, and Moslems. If Shintoists or Agnostics or Buddhists feel excluded because of the prominent role played by this obvious display of sectarianism, they should be reminded of the historic role that the Judeo-Christian heritage played in our nation's development. As Woodrow Wilson stated, "A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today,nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about.... America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture."

When we are harangued by pundits such as Dershowitz to respect our "religious diversity", they mean that the particularistic aspect of every religion must be suppressed lest it offend the sensitivity of someone who does not agree. Respect for religious diversity, however, lies not in seeking public exclusion of religious expression different from our own, but rather in the civilized and polite acceptance, based on mutual respect, of the expressions of differing faiths. In September 1774, John Adams wrote to his wife about the first session of the Continental Congress: "When the Congress met, Mr.. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with Prayer. It was opposed by Mr.. Jay of New York, and Mr.. Rutledge of South Carolina because we were so divided in religious sentiments...that we could not join in the same act of worship. Mr.. Samuel Adams arose and said that he was no bigot, and could hear a Prayer from any gentleman of Piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his Country." Thereafter, they agreed that Congress would begin with a prayer, which it does to this day. We should emulate Adams and not the professorial bigots.

Carl Pearlston
Board Member, Toward Tradition












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