SEPTEMBER 17, 2001
The Importance of Getting It
-- Martin E. Marty
The nation and all its citizens, we included, are getting lessons on the practice of public religion, especially in the form of prayers and worship. There is no problem sighting its presence, in a nation that used to be described by some as merely, purely, secular.
Not all the lessons are encouraging. At a time when we need civil conversation, clear thinking, and perspective, the air waves get fouled by the likes of Jerry Falwell. His "theological comment" suggestion that God needed bin Laden stirred up to avenge America for harboring the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, etc. is un-theological, un-biblical, un-Christian, and undeserving of further comment. Let's get serious.
What troubles all who have tried for years to make distinctions between voluntary and coerced, legally provided-for public prayer and worship is the appearance of a disconcerting number of in-your-face, ha-ha, anti-ACLU-PFAW columns and editorials that exploit the nation's grief and need for consolation and direction.
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass fouled the air on the important and meaningful day of public remembrance last Friday, September 14, with:"For a Change, Prayers are Said Without Shouting." Kass drew attention to the sudden, understandable up-surge in public and publicized prayer. He would not keep score on who was praying and who wasn't, but he gloated, "you can't hear much loud public complaining about the public praying. I thought I'd surely hear the whining and the carping and the press conferencing and picketing against public prayer. But the anti-public-prayer whining isn't loud enough to register. So we're not hearing the separation-of-church and state crowd gnashing it's teeth." No, everyone is praying. "Perhaps we all get it now."
What saddens is that the John Kasses of our society even now don't get it, with their citizen-dividing efforts. Maybe some anti-religious person somewhere acted up; I have heard of only one. Maybe some prophetic Jewish, Christian and Muslim clerics, and other theologians offered up some scripturally-based critical perspective on this or that formula of public faith. That is their right and duty, but it's beside the point in respect to the current issue. The reason you do not hear complaint about Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. gathering at places like Washington National Cathedral, is that attendance there is entirely voluntary.
You cannot keep us -- and we include many ACLU, PFAW, and AU (Americans United) members -- from worship of our choice. Invite me to a cathedral or vigil and I'll expect and want to pray.
To use government, including public schools and court houses, to make aggressive provision for worship and religious symbolization that take dissenters captive or lead to their ostracism if they express their convictions is the problem. That is the issue. Perhaps we all get it now.