July 13, 2007

Christian Extremists Disrupt Senate: Hypocrisy Not the Real Story

When I fist saw this headline appearing on several atheist blogs, I figured that the Christian extremists involved were probably senators. As it turns out, they were members of Operation Save America, a Christian extremist group. This is a fascinating tale of hypocrisy, as the Religious Right defends regular Christian prayer in the Senate by playing the "religious tolerance" card. It appears that tolerance is only supposed to extend as far as their particular religion. Still, I think that there is a far more important story here which should not be neglected.

The U.S. Senate opens every day with a prayer - I'll come back to that. However, this was the first time a Hindu chaplain was invited to give the prayer. Needless to say, this did not go over well with a trio of Christian extremists in attendance. You can see what happened here.

From the coverage I've seen so far, the story appears to be the hypocrisy in how the Religious Right defends the Senate's daily (almost always Christian) prayer and then opposes a Hindu prayer. According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, disrupting the Hindu prayer is evidence of religious intolerance on the part of the protesters.
“This shows the intolerance of many Religious Right activists,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “They say they want more religion in the public square, but it’s clear they mean only their religion.
The protesters called the Hindu prayer an "abomination" because it was not directed at their particular god. Secular Left notes, "Some Christians talk a good game about religious tolerance until they are asked to do it for other beliefs." Similarly, PZ Myers of Pharyngula stated, "It's absurd but so typical of Christian extremists that they would freak out at the imposition of a prayer that does not reflect their beliefs — welcome to my world, guys."

I think Ed Brayton from Dispatches From the Culture Wars may have provided the best analysis:
Mind you, when we criticize the fact that the Senate begins every other day with a Christian prayer, we are accused of trying to destroy religious freedom. When any other type of prayer is offered, this magically has nothing at all to do with religious freedom. Silly Hindus, don't you realize that only Christians get to have the official government imprimatur upon their religion? You just sit back and enjoy your cheeseburger and let the Christians pray.
Not to take anything away from this fascinating example of how "religious tolerance" is only supposed to apply to the Christian religion, I think that the real story is getting lost in the shuffle. And just what is the real story? The United States Senate begins each day with a prayer.

I don't care whether this prayer is Christian, Hindu, Mormon, whatever. That this example of superstitious idiocy is a formal part of Congressional proceedings is an embarrassment to those of us in the reality-based community. I applaud PZ Myers for hitting the nail on the head:
Anyway, the only fair response to all this is simply to stop the magic incantations to any deity in our government. Let the senators who feel a need say a quiet prayer on their own, without dragging everyone into their personal superstition. And let's chide any senators who complain about that for the weakness of their faith, that they can't even pray without someone at the front of the room to help them out.
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