• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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…