American Day of Prayer? No. Freedom for Campus Christian Groups to Be Christian? Of Course.

Our American cousins are in the throes of a national hoo-hah over whether the National Day of Prayer, this year held on May 6, should continue. A federal judge in Wisconsin recently ruled that it was unconstitutional.

I’ll leave the legal opinions to lawyers and politicians, but the judge’s decision seems to me to be basically right about the underlying philosophical point. A national day of prayer in America is a throwback to the days when Christians unapologetically ran the show and it was unofficially and indisputably a Christian show. (The Day of Prayer was instituted in that great era of the dominance of what I call “Semi-Official, Semi-Christian Theism,” the 1950s–the same era that made “In God We Trust” the American national motto.) But America is a country that officially welcomes non-Christians and, indeed, non-theists, without prejudice and to full standing. So why continue to hold a national occasion that will definitely, inescapably, and rudely exclude some American citizens?

To hear proponents of the Day of Prayer tell it, such as the honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force Franklin Graham (not widely known for his sophistication when it comes to matters of religious diversity and political delicacy) and his spokesperson Mark De Moss, the Day of Prayer is just self-evidently a good thing. I mean, who’s against prayer, especially for (and you knew it was coming) Our Troops?

Let me assure my American cousins that I pray for your troops, as I pray for ours, and as I pray for all who are embroiled in Afghanistan and Iraq and…and…and all over. I do it as a Christian in my private prayers and I do it with other Christians in churches. But what I don’t do is expect the government of a land welcoming people of a wide range of ideologies, including people who do not pray, to sponsor prayer meetings. I don’t expect my government to do it and I wish yours wouldn’t.

Coincidentally, my new friend Michael McConnell, former federal judge, professor of law at Stanford University, and litigator extraordinary, is arguing this week before the U. S. Supreme Court that Christian groups on secular campuses–in this case, the Christian Legal Society at the University of California’s Hastings Law School–are entitled to forbid non-Christians and others who do not share their core values (such as those engaging in illicit sexual relations) from taking leadership positions.

The powers that be at Hastings have refused certification for the group because they are discriminatory. The CLS is retorting that the first letter in their name stands for “Christian” and it matters to the group that the leadership embrace its fundamental ethos. Otherwise, as Mike and I joked last week when I was lecturing at his school, it’s like a bunch of guys playing hockey every week who let four newcomers join, only to have the newcomers set up a contract bridge card table at centre ice and insist on being allowed to play. Certain kinds of diversity enrich a group; other kinds confuse and ultimately destroy the host society.

This doesn’t seem to me to be a difficult concept either to grasp or to practice. What’s to keep a group of militant Christians from standing for, and winning, election in the campus atheist group, or communist group, or prochoice or progay group, and thoroughly subverting it? A group of Jews from taking over the local Muslim fellowship or vice versa? A group of libertarians taking over the Democratic club? Who wants that sort of anarchical nonsense breaking out on campuses already pretty confused about questions of mutual respect, tolerance of unpopular views, and the like?

No, American pluralism means no government rituals favouring one sort of religion–even a generic sort like “praying religions” versus “non-praying religions.” But American freedom of association means allowing bona fide campus societies to be what they are and remain so.

From up here, at least, it seems pretty clear. Now if I could only get my fellow Canadians to agree with me on similar matters north of the 49th parallel…

0 Responses to “American Day of Prayer? No. Freedom for Campus Christian Groups to Be Christian? Of Course.”

  1. Jordan

    Interesting stuff. What would you say about prayer opening a session of Congress, for instance? That seems to be somewhere in between. Should it be OK if everybody agrees to it or should it be avoided altogether?

  2. erp

    I should point out that all the groups face that possibility and that this is a fairly common policy across US campuses for ‘officially recognized’ student groups. A student can’t be, a priori, banned from membership or for standing for election. Nothing requires the other members to listen to or vote for him or her and the group’s constitution could limit damage from attempted hijacking.

    Also nothing says the group can’t exist with whatever membership policy it wants; however, it can’t be an ‘official’ university group with the privileges that brings (e.g., university subsidy) if it chooses to discriminate on grounds of race, religion, etc..

    • John Stackhouse

      All of what you say is true, erp, and it shows that we haven’t yet thought through genuine multiculturalism, or even just the nature of diverse groups on campus.

      Banning all discrimination indiscriminately (so to speak) might sound good…but it makes no ultimate sense. You can’t have certain kinds of societies–and I mean publicly affirmable, useful societies such as a Christian (or Muslim or feminist or progay or Republican) legal club at a law school–without letting them protect their basic character by way of membership or leadership requirements.

      • erp

        I suspect like will tend to cluster with like in groups without a test for membership (and if a group were intent on taking over a rival group, they would probably lie to pass any test set). No one is saying a Christian club has to recruit a few non-Christians to join (or an atheist club a few non-atheists).

        • John Stackhouse

          This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t an (actual) issue, right? But the fact of the matter is that heterodox people have attempted to join the group in queston, and this is something that has happened elsewhere in the U.S. previously. This isn’t a hypothetical matter that can be determined in the abstract only.

          You might think, “Well, shucks, THAT wouldn’t happen,” but it is happening, has happened, and doubtless will happen again. That’s why it’s gone all the way up the courts and why the Supreme Court agreed to hear it.

  3. gingoro

    My preference would be not to give student clubs any money at all. Let the various club members support what they care about. If they want to see the student newspaper let them buy it from news boxes. The school should allow use of classrooms when not in use, probably some bulletin board space and a web page for student affairs that points at the clubs web pages. Otherwise money is transferred to clubs that many students either don’t care about or that they don’t have time for or even worse to clubs that some students find morally or philosophically objectionable.

    Similarly parliament, congress, or public schools should not have opening prayers or readings.

    Someone who needs a part time job while at school should not have to subsidize student activities as they are already short of funds.
    Dave W

  4. jack

    The Court does not set the operating rules for Congress and the Congress does not micromanage the Courts.

    Lets open the door of prayer to pagans, idol worship, witches, devil worship Hindus and Muslims

  5. Rob

    The beauty is that we’re able to have this kind of conversation without fear of (real) persecution.
    With that said, I think I like having a NDOP, if for no other reason than to remind us how this nation was founded. I’m not up in arms. Part of me appreciates the turning, frankly. At least we’re starting to be honest with ourselves as to our current national identity. So many people think that they are followers of Christ simply because they were born here, when in fact they don’t know Him. There is a lot more to say on this, but I don’t want to stray any farther off of your point, Professor.

  6. Ben Wheaton

    That gratuitous insult to Franklin Graham was pretty childish of you, Dr. Stackhouse.

    For the rest, I’m in full agreement.

  7. John Stackhouse

    This post is about understanding clearly what is at stake in North American society in terms of multiculturalism, respect for neighbours of other points of view, the proper use of state power, and the place of the Christian church and the Christian religion in American life. Franklin Graham, in my view, has frequently disqualified himself to speak on these issues. (Here‘s the latest.)

    The remark I made was gently sarcastic relative to the unhelpfully extreme comments that Mr. Graham has publicly uttered about Islam, about Christian privilege in American society, and other related matters. How “childish” my remark was is a matter of opinion. (You know a number of children who make remarks like that, do you?) But it wasn’t gratuitous: It was directly on point.

  8. danielole

    I don’t know about the National Day of Prayer, but I recently was present at the Minnesota Day of Prayer (a statewide event)–from all appearances, the day was financed through table sponsorships and charitable organizations. In essence, it was a privately financed event to support and pray for publicly elected officials. In essence, the Minnesota Day of Prayer is clearly a voluntary society composed of Christians, much like the campus groups you endorse. The fact that publicly elected officials see it as both edifying and politically helpful to attend such gatherings shouldn’t change this. There are plenty of other religious groups in Minnesota, and some Muslims and Native Americans hold public office here. I suppose they would also be welcome to host a Minnesota Day of Prayer to their respective gods, and invite their respective elected officials.

    • danielole

      I hope my point is clear enough. I’m simply saying the National Day of Prayer is Christians organizing and throwing an event to encourage and support elected officials who hold Christian convictions–regardless of party affiliation. You certainly aren’t trying to suggest Christians shouldn’t be allowed to do this sort of thing?

      • John Stackhouse

        We’re talking about an Act of Congress here, not about a voluntary prayer event hosted by Christians (or anyone else) to which elected officials are invited and can come or not as they please.

  9. danielole

    My apologies–I was referring to the Minnesota Prayer Breakfast, which is a takeoff of the National Prayer Breakfast–which I believe is associated with the National Day of Prayer.
    I wonder if the bigger picture question is what happens when you remove these sacralizing practices–prayer and liturgical-type forms–from the public square. One hopes they continue to reside in their proper place–the church–but won’t the residual honor for authority, tradition, and the sacred–all carryovers from our Judeo-Christian norms and habits–all but fade away?


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