The censorial option is spreading very quickly across the American landscape. We have seen its rapid growth in the cancel culture, which Big Tech has used quite effectively to deprive citizens of information that contradicts the approved positions of society’s elites. We got a big dose of it during the pandemic when scientists with government jobs told us we were not supposed to consider bona fide research findings which lacked the imprimatur of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The latest area to get the attention of the politically-correct police is prayer in public, what we ordinarily call invocations and benedictions.
The practice of having a member of the clergy offer a prayer at the beginning and end of public meetings, such as sessions of a legislature, a school graduation, or a civic commemoration, has been a veritable staple of American life for a long time. Most people do not object to our long-standing practice because it acknowledges a place for religion in public life while at the same time it does not establish a preeminence for one religion over another vis-à-vis the state. Some, though, in a deeply secularized America, now see an opportunity to begin clamping down on prayers that are perceived as offensive or not in keeping with prevailing attitudes.
In early February, I received a telephone call from a reporter at a local newspaper on the east end of Long Island, New York. I was not in my office at the time, and the reporter left a message stating that she wanted to speak with me about an invocation I had offered at a session of the Suffolk County Legislature a few days before Christmas in the previous calendar year. By the time I finished listening to the reporter’s message, I had made up my mind not to return the call. Little did I realize though what had occurred in the intervening seven weeks between my invocation and the reporter’s call.
In the interim, a legislator had introduced a resolution (No. 1004-2022) asking for “neutral” prayers before the legislature, seeking to put an end to “advancing religious doctrine.” I only learned of the resolution’s existence because I appeared at a public meeting on crime statistics and crime prevention, and I happened to speak with an aide to a local legislator. The next day, I went online and found the reporter’s piece in
The Southampton Press on the resolution introduced by a Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor). The resolution mentions the Constitution of the United States multiple times and observes that invocations must not violate the strictures of that seminal text for our republic.
Much more telling of the whole situation, I would say, is reporter Kitty Merrill’s background on the resolution. She begins her piece in The Southampton Press this way: “Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming was surprised to hear clergy offering opening invocations. . .that included what she deemed a clear violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The reporter continues: “The legislator took note of Catholic priests bringing pro-life doctrine” into their invocations.
I was one of those Catholic priests—one of two, in fact. I offered my invocation on December 21st, and with the date’s close proximity to Christmas, a prayer for unborn children was not out of place. However, even were it not near Christmas, I still would have prayed for children in the womb.
It probably escaped the legislator’s awareness that my invocation was based on the Declaration of Independence, which calls our attention to truths that are self-evident. Characterizing truths as self-evident is the first clue that the founders are not referring to any religious doctrine, and neither was I in my invocation. The Declaration goes on to state plainly that men have certain inalienable rights, and among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. The rights in question are natural rights, and as such are discernible through the natural law. The natural law, we ought to know better, is not a religious doctrine.
The natural law binds all of us together. It does not separate us into religious people and scientific people. For men and women of faith do not have their own esoteric position on when life begins. Religious people, like those whose chief commitment is to science, hold that life begins at conception. Conception then cannot be a religious doctrine; it must be a scientific truth.
After praying for a respect for life at all stages, especially pre-born life, I prayed for a respect for liberty, especially religious liberty. As the pro-life position makes many on the Left want to get censorial, so too does the religious liberty position. I prayed back in the Advent season that it is in “conscience. . .where we meet God and come to know His law and the responsibilities which flow from it.”
This did not draw the objection of the legislator—at least according to the published account. But it could very well have, considering the climate which prevails in the United States and, more generally, the West. The climate, known by opinion polls, court decisions, and things like employment policies, disfavors exceptions to the progressive agenda on the basis of conscience. Why, many people are anguished to ask today, should individuals, groups, or churches be allowed to stand in the way of the exercise of someone’s human or civil rights?
It was not so long ago in the history of our own nation that the argument from conscience was invoked to prod legislators into changing laws that discriminated against racial minorities. Now, conscience protection cannot be invoked as the basis for maintaining the traditional understanding of marriage over and against the federal government, which holds that sexual differentiation is not of the essence of marriage. Skin color is not of the essence of marriage, and racial intermarriage has existed for a long time in most places.
Sexual differentiation, on the other hand, is indeed of the essence of matrimony, and yet its meaning can be cast aside merely on the grounds that marriage is whatever a majority of people at a certain moment of history say it is. Where is the conscience protection for those who are convinced that a marriage cannot be had in the case of a man “marrying” a man or a woman “marrying” a woman? Are we to conclude that the traditional understanding of marriage has just been wrong all along? Does not conscience count for anything when we say in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are “one nation, under God”? Has God been wrong all this time?
Bringing to a close my invocation, I prayed that in a pursuit of our happiness, we practice virtue. Virtue is the royal road to happiness according to ancients like Plato and Aristotle, and citizens who are happy in practicing the virtues are the best in governing themselves. Such thinking is far from unprecedented in American history. George Washington, our first president, wrote once that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” He went on to ask rhetorically in his Farewell Address (1796) “[c]an it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?”
Washington was clearly no religious extremist. He was only teasing out in his Farewell Address the implications of what the Declaration of Independence says is a right we have as citizens. Calling religion and morality “indispensable supports” to our national life, Washington held that the right to pursue happiness could never be understood in an antinomian way. It would have to be ordered to religious principles like the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount.
Religion, morality, and virtue—each one of them and all of them together—are goods on a personal basis. The nation has a citizenry equipped to govern itself because individual Americans have undergone a formation voluntarily according to how they understand ultimate truths, ethics, and self-mastery. Without formation in these critical areas, a society sooner or later loses its way and inevitably goes into decline. That day is hastened when some take it upon themselves, through the use of government control, to censor the human spirit’s affinity for what is eternal.
Making invocations pass muster only with respect to the U.S. Constitution (the First Amendment, it needs to be noted, protects free speech and thus invocations are protected according to this provision) is excessively narrow and ignores other seminal documents in our history which speak favorably to religion, morality, and virtue. The question then is: Why would we want to impoverish our national life by neglecting religion, morality, and virtue? If the aim though is to advance the secularization of our nation, we would welcome silence on these subjects in invocations. Therefore, it is not the “advancement of religious doctrine” that we should fear; rather, it is the secularization of America, which sees little or no role for eternal verities in the exercise of our freedom.