PBS recently published a video with a sectarian prayer to Jesus Christ as the invocation for a mandatory, large-scale, and politically important Ranger graduation that included the first women Rangers. The chaplain officer offered an invocation, not simply secular, not non-denominational, but explicitly sectarian in his personal religious tradition, Christianity. Prayers led by government officials, whether they are sectarian or non-sectarian, violate the Constitution and exclude nontheists. This also gives prominent visibility and special privilege to evangelical Christians above all others. Given today’s legal and cultural environment, are sectarian or non-denominational prayers greater Constitutional violations?
Evangelical, political Christianity should not continue to be the only privileged and promoted religious belief in the US military.
Non-denominational prayer Isn’t. If it’s sincere prayer, it’s not non-denominational. If it’s truly non-denominational, it’s so sterile and soulless that it may be disrespectful to the beliefs of the person offering the prayer. Also, many devout people support secular government and have a concern when the government gets in the business of deciding what prayer should or shouldn’t be. To avoid these issues, the simplest solution is to have government events but to simply leave prayer to individuals in non-official settings.
“Unless the particular service drill and ceremonies manual calls for a prayer or invocation, none should be given. Adhering to these instructions will ensure proper military protocol without compromising good order and discipline, and without violating the constitutional principle of church-state separation.” – Tom Carpenter, Co-Chair of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy.
The conventional wisdom says that these government-led prayers are ok so long as they are non-denominational. The argument is that non-denominational prayers don’t discriminate against anyone because they don’t cater to a specific denomination. The obvious fault in this argument is that any prayer excludes atheists and other nontheists who don’t pray. The second flaw is that most ‘non-denominational’ prayers refer to a monotheistic god, heaven and hell, the power of prayer, and other concepts common to various religions more common to Christian and other Western monotheistic traditions.
Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, reiterates the primary concern of secular Americans regarding non-denominational or sectarian prayer, “Any allowance for prayer that has the appearance of government endorsement will lead to a discrimination. Asking government to address the content of such prayer just further in appropriately entangles government and religion.”
Arguably the most important flaw is that in practice, the ‘non-denominational’ restriction on government-led prayer has essentially disappeared. The military has long communicated a permissive policy with respect to sectarian prayer (Army citation, 2012). Unfortunately, Christian evangelists commonly seem to ignore laws and professional standards that advise against government promotion of religion and instead simply promote their personal beliefs. This may seem like an attack on Christianity, but it is a concern many Christians share. There are many good Christian chaplains and other military officers (and government officials) who have enough respect and integrity not to abuse their authority to promote their personal religious beliefs at mandatory events to captive audiences. We share the concern of many good Christian and other chaplains about proselytism by chaplains. And when a policy is undefined, as in this case of government-led prayer, then abuse will occur, as in the case of the military where fundamentalist Christians honor the letter of the law and give their sectarian prayers while those espousing other beliefs honor the spirit of the law and adhere to more neutral invocations.
So what this means is that Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and “good” Christians give vanilla, non-denominational prayer while a small subset of Christians take advantage of legal loopholes to push their beliefs on others. I have never seen nor even heard of a military sectarian prayer given by a non-Christian. I’m sure it has happened, but it is fair to say that currently, only the “bad” Christians benefit from the status quo. (I am referring to general invocations and excluding explicit ‘diversity’ invitees, and those examples invite Christian protests, often.) This spirit of the law says chaplains “shouldn’t” give sectarian prayers so most give non-denominational prayers while evangelists who care only for promoting their beliefs don’t hesitate to give evangelical messages whenever they find themselves in front of captive, impressionable audiences, as we see in the video above.
So for those who want to protect sectarian prayer, there must be a discussion of how, under the Constitution, one can stand in front of a crowd of military personnel, in a military uniform, as a military officer, with a microphone and give their own personal evangelical prayer. This is clearly unconstitutional and yet continues without restriction due to the silence of good military officers, Christian and otherwise.
II. Potential for sectarian prayer in official government settings
First and foremost, prayer excludes nontheists, always, without exception. Appeal to the divine by government officials at mandatory government events gives government preference to god-based beliefs and relegates nontheists to second-class citizen status. But the conversation need not stop there. In a diverse society, there must be compromise and one workable compromise might be more sectarian prayer. Progressive political philosophy, arguably she American ideal, says that the solution to bad speech is not censorship, but more speech.
So imagine a world in which invocations and benedictions at military events are not just suggested but required to be sectarian. Evangelicals should be happy at first, declaring victory that religious freedom is protected. However, as previously noted, they already have this legal freedom to give sectarian prayer during an invocation and take advantage of that freedom. So in that sense, the evangelical Christian influence in government would not change. But many others, including Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and even Humanists, would be able to give invocations in their tradition. In such examples in the past some Christians have staged protests, interrupted the event, and even blocked the activity. Their argument in these cases was not for religious freedom but for an exclusive “Christian Nation.” With this history, it is unclear whether that subset of Christians currently giving sectarian invocations would support religious freedom for all beliefs, but I think they should be given the opportunity to make their positions clear.
This is not simply a concession to religion but an embrace of diversity over exclusion of religion from government events. So this means that over many events, there would be Christian prayers, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Wiccan, and other prayers, Humanist invocations, and patriotic, inspirational, and historical secular statements. All of these would be welcome expressions of diversity relevant to whatever event is going on. This would ‘add solemnity’ to the event, recognize tradition, and promote diversity. If 90%+ of invocations continue to be fundamentalist Christian prayers to Jesus, that would still be a promotion of Christianity. This gets into demographic studies, but it is true that less than 70% of the military self-identifies as Christian and so invocation diversity should recognize the diversity of the general population and not just the current 97% Christian chaplaincy. Furthermore, a military that values diversity will not simply match percentages directly to the general population but will give special outreach to those populations less well represented in chaplaincy and leadership. The invocation might become an important platform to show military personnel that it is ok believe what they like.
Given a choice between no prayer and prayer at official government events, the Constitution and secular values argue for personal rather than government expressions of religion. However, in the current political, cultural, and legal climate, given the choice between non-denominational prayer and sectarian prayer, sectarian prayer may be the better option. This means explicit statement of not just the general (eg, “Christian”) sect but the specific sect (eg, Southern Baptist or American Baptist). This will eliminate the false perception that all Christians are the same or that they event agree with one another on significant issues. As Roman Catholics, Mormons, Southern Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, and Christian Scientists give truly authentic messages, everyone will acquire a greater appreciation for diversity belief and the messages each denomination is truly putting out. That authenticity will be the fastest way for military leaders to see and assess whether they really want personal religious beliefs to play a prominent role in official military events.
Let’s take a moment for station identification… honesty about denominational bias is better than waving a false flag for diversity.
When giving prayer, chaplains normally say, “I invite you to pray with me” or “I invite you to pray in your tradition as I pray in mine.” These caveats might as well be the chaplain telling attendees, “I’m sorry you’re offended, but I will pray as I like anyway.” But finding an inclusive or at least somewhat respectful introduction will be necessary. This is also an opportunity to identify the denomination of the prayer. “I will now offer a prayer in the tradition of the Church of God, Cleveland Tennessee.” This does not invite others to join, because that’s evangelism. It does not pretend others are included when they are not. However, this simple denominational introduction informs the crowd what tradition has the podium for the moment.
This denominational identification does not prevent others from participating if they choose. This does not invite or prevent attendees from bowing their head. While there is no military justification to bow one’s head, it is certainly a reasonable religious accommodation to allow service members during a prayer to bow their heads rather than standing rigidly. On the other hand, only Christians simply bow their heads, so that practice privileges Christianity above other traditions. Humanists are encouraged to keep their heads up and look around to make a human connection with other personnel in the formation. Will we invite Soldiers to kneel and prostrate themselves, as Muslims do, during a ‘non-denominational’ invocation? Will we allow other personnel to steeple their hands or handle beads according to other traditions? The current status quo is sometimes to invite or even order military personnel to bow their heads. That practice should end because no matter how much the chaplain would like to see a military formation engaged in head-bowed Christian prayer, such an order is unlawful. Religious freedom means the freedom to practice one’s personal religion not freedom to order others to engage in religion.
The denominational identification should also give broad leeway for sectarian messages. These messages may, for example, be inspirational, ethical, historical, instructional, judgmental, or evangelical. Again, separation of church and state is the preferred and Constitutional precedent, but given that we value diversity and have a tradition of invocations, we are considering an improvement to the current false flag of non-denominational prayer. So given an invocation, and given a denominational disclaimer, we should value an authentic message over a vanilla message. That may offend some people. Media propaganda is that atheists are offended, but the truth is atheists say no one has the right not to be offended. Military regulations and decorum might trump diversity in certain cases. For example, the military should have a difficult decision of whether the anti-gay denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention should be authorized to give anti-gay messages during invocations, or whether Muslims should be able to say that Christians are bound for hell due to their polytheism. The former contradicts military equal opportunity policy and the latter arguably hurts morale. A Humanist might give inspiration regarding the one, finite life we have that might offend Christians and others who believe in an afterlife. Direct criticism of military policy or leaders should not be tolerated, but hopefully the military can provide a forum for authentic religious expression even if it is contrary to military policy statements.
There is also a requirement to manage diversity across many events. Military leaders, including chaplains, will need to schedule many denominations as events occur. For example, if there are 10 Ranger School graduations, a diverse group of 10, 2 Roman Catholic, 1 Southern Baptist, 1 Church of God in Christ, 1 Humanist, 1 Wiccan, 1 Hindu, and 3 officers giving historic/military messages. This is just an example and in this example, Roman Catholic has more than others and Muslims aren’t represented. In the next group of 10, maybe Humanists and Southern Baptists would be replaced with Mormon and Muslim. Maybe in another group, one of the military history messages might be replaced with a Satanist message. Having 9 “Christian” prayers and one Jewish prayer would be tokenism not diversity.
As noted before, the chaplaincy simply doesn’t have among its members the diversity required to represent the general population and so it will be necessary for chaplains and non-chaplain leaders to draw from outside the chaplaincy to give invocations. Reaching to outside contractors for events and lay leaders is a normal process, so there should be no great challenge if chaplains are willing to respect all diversity of belief. Attending to the real diversity of belief in the general population is much harder to manage than working only from those available in the local chaplain office or simply having purely secular military events. However, the extra oversight will pay dividends for those many minorities who will for the first time have recognition. This will also correct misperceptions of power and persecution that some religious groups currently cultivate.
If eliminating invocations seems untenable from a political perspective due to religious interest groups, then we must re-engage on the sectarian prayer policy question. Those interest groups must request not only unfettered freedom but participate in presenting accountability in return for the government promotion of their prayers. If a policy to allow total denominational authenticity and accountability in invocations is not feasible from a policy perspective, then the only alternative is to eliminate prayer during invocations. Military events will be just fine without prayer. Evangelicals will lament the loss of their platform, but the military will go on just fine and those evangelicals can pray in their churches and homes and on the television and on street corners and at work and school as much as they do today. What is untenable is the current status quo – some chaplains giving “non-denominational prayer” that excludes those who don’t pray and disrespects the personal and passionate nature of prayer, and some chaplains giving evangelical Christian prayer every time they’re given a military audience. Maybe those who have opened the door to government-led sectarian prayer can open that door for everyone, if they values religious freedom for all.
III. Potential Guidelines for Sectarian Prayer
Note that this policy conversation of what is proper and improper is valuable only when the military (and other agencies) choose to have the conversation. To the extent this conversation is too politically and culturally difficult to have, government leaders must choose no prayer at all.
Avoid government-led prayer, but in the case of government-led prayer:
authenticity – be true to the denomination without filtering or diluting for diversity
identification – identify the specific religious tradition
diversity – not in each invocation but across multiple events
Let the individual with the microphone speak for themselves, give no order/encouragement/invitation:
to appear to appear to participate
Maintain military decorum:
Criticism of military policy or leaders prohibited
Contradiction of military policy discouraged
Denigration of other beliefs discouraged (but may unavoidably be implied by authentic comments)
Example introductions and comments:
General format: “I will now offer an [invocation] in the tradition of [my church].”
What to do:
I will now offer a Christian invocation in the tradition of the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee.
I will now offer a Buddhist koan in the tradition of the Buddhist Churches of America.
I will now read a Humanist Invocation in the tradition of The Humanist Society.
I will now read a Muslim Sutrah in the tradition of The Islamic Society of North America.
I will now read an Orthodox Jewish prayer in the tradition of The Aleph Institute.
I will now read a Catholic Gospel Reading in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
I will now sing a Catholic prayer in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church.
What not to do:
I invite you to pray with me. (encouragement to participate)
Please bow your heads. (encouragement to participate)
I will now offer a Christian prayer. (denomination too vague)
Please Lord teach the military the error of normalizing the gay lifestyle. (Directly contradicts military policy)
Let us reflect on the harm religion has done in the world and endeavor to avoid its ills. (Directly denigrates the beliefs of others)
Lord, save those who fail to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts. (Directly denigrates the beliefs of others)
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