Spiritual Adultery? -- Martin E. Marty

Excommunication is very rare in American religious bodies

By Martin E. Marty|October 26, 2000

Excommunication is very rare in American religious bodies. Can you think of an instance in which a lay person was ever excluded from membership? Yet the deputy managing editor of *World*, a representative magazine for conservative evangelicals, urges excommunication for any unrepentant member of Congress who professes to be a Christian but who committed a grave sin at a joint session on September 14.

The sin? Specifically, "taking part in the service" led by an Ohio priest. Those who prayed along were "engaged in spiritual adultery, which is every bit as serious as physical adultery." Why? Because the priest was Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala, whose name strongly hints that he is not Irish Catholic or Swedish Lutheran but Hindu. Those who prayed with him, writes *World* editor Timothy Lamer, "basically bowed down to Baal." They "bowed down to a false god" and took part "in a prayer that denies Christ."

Not all professing Christians count in Lamer's book. They may be members of theologically liberal Protestant churches, which make up "a different religion," part of a "different class of religions" than that held by evangelicals. A "great number of mainline Protestant churches," he writes, "are no more Christian than Mr. Samuldrala's Shiva Hindu Temple in Parma, Ohio." Pray with these liberal Protestants and face excommunication too?

I bring this up not to make fun of Lamer, because, harsh as he is, he is struggling with a genuine issue, offering an alert to which observers of American religion should pay close attention. Lamer's editorial is a "distant early warning" signal of the sort we hear and read ever more frequently: not all evangelicals -- the camp that has agitated most for school prayer, football-game invocations, and legislative chaplains -- are pleased with the bargain they'll be getting in a richly pluralist America.

Pluralism, however defined, will not go away. So Lamer wants evangelicals "to rethink their devotion to civil religion," a religion they cannot always and everywhere control. "Get ready for Mormons, Muslims, New Age shamans, and . . . even Wiccans leading congressmen in prayer on the floor of the House." Yes, get ready. Maybe "legislatures shouldn't have chaplains," he suggests, in sympathy with civil libertarian and secular-minded Americans.

Lamer may do a disservice to civil religion, chaplains, tolerance, amity, and public-prayer advocates. He does a service to those who want more serious second-thinking about what exactly comes with public worship in a society condemned to be diverse.

Editor's note: Timothy Lamer's editorial "Spiritual Adultery: A Case of Infidelity in the Public Square" originally appeared in the October 7, 2000 issue of *World*. You can read it online at http://www.worldmag.com/world/issue/10-07-00/closing_1.asp.