In a narrow vote the Supreme Court upheld the small town of Greece, NY, having Christian prayers to start their town hall meetings. At first glance I imagine the overall Christian response would be in the affirmative, but I wonder if it really is a victory.
The decision was backed by the Obama administration, and it relied heavily on a decision from 1983 up holding Nebraska’s right to pray. The justification is simple, the Supreme Court does not want to turn town officials into censors and the prayers before meetings are largely “ceremonial”. It’s not an obvious slight, but it is a degradation of prayer to “mere” ceremony.
Now, those who advocate for having no prayer for the sake of religious freedom will probably see this as a loss, but I think it may be a loss to Christians as well.
William Cavanaugh argues in “Migrations of the Holy” that the creation of the modern day nation state subsumes all other loyalties into the loyalty to the state. The dominate narrative of our culture then becomes the narrative of the nation state over and against all other narratives. What does this mean? It means that our identity as American is primary to our identity as family. It means that our identity as American trumps our identity as Christian.
The Civil War split up families across lines of two different types of governance. Families tend to draw their identity as American as part of their unity together. Churches have only an attraction model of formation because identity formation is disallowed not formally but pragmatically. The prophetic voice that could be offered by the church is swallowed up by the selling of Jesus to support the institution. The church is a market place instead of being a community of formation and a present example of the kingdom that is to come showing the world the way of repentance.
This is hardly a universal analysis of particulars, but this way of picturing the situation in the United States offers up a pretty decent explanation of the current “buyer’s market” decline of the mainline denominations in the Country and the rise of pseudo-patriotic hierarchy free churches. This drastically oversimplifies the decline, but it also helps me get at what my problem is with the rationale of the Supreme Court in today’s decision.
First, it presumes that American tradition cannot be a religion in itself that disallows the practice of other religions. We know this to be false, we know that the American dream offers little in correlation to any vision of genuine discipleship. We also know that the supposed worship of the individual only exists within the confines of American Civil religion. James K.A. Smith points out the formation of this pervasive worship by pointing out how impossible it would be to not stand and cover your heart for the national anthem at a football field or little league game. Consider the pledge of allegiance to a flag and a republic. There are individual freedoms as long as it doesn’t interfere with the practices of worship that are part and parcel of an American Religion.
Second, it places prayer as a ritual or a ceremonial purpose. This allows prayer on the basis of it being part of the back ground of meetings like setting up chairs. While uncensored prayers are allowed this is simply because they are part of the American Civil Religion. They are allowed within the context of the selling of this religion and promptly ignorable on the same basis.
In both conflicts we see the upholding of the right to freedom of religious expression only within the context of American Civil Religion. This isn’t the Supreme Court perpetrating some sort of conspiracy this is the way that Nation States function. In a manner of speaking the Supreme Court is serving people to make way for prayer which may be a decidedly good thing for Christians especially Christians that believe God listens and answers when ever anyone prays regardless of their religious beliefs.
We know that prayers are efficacious, powerful when they are answered by God directly, even when reshaping the person doing the praying. Getting up and praying at the beginning of the meeting is powerful and can be used to stand up to agendas that would be harmful to communities. Prayer can bring us back to the form of beggars that have the humility to allow space for the “other” within the community.
That takes a disciplined formative experience with prayer that takes more thought and repetition to enables spontaneous or written prayer that mange to escape the gravitational pull of American Civil Religion. It will take a community that may have been better formed by being force to meet together to pray before meetings. So, I leave it up to you: Did Christians win or loose today?