June 20, 2008
Praying to Jesus at government meetings
Why it's not a good thing, even for Christians
I never imagined Irv Rubin and I would agree on anything. He was the leader of the Jewish Defense League, an organization, founded by Meir Kahane, that took the ADL's efforts to terrorist extremes and could make an anti-Semite out of Tevye the milkman. I was the archetypal product of assimilation, a liberal evangelical with a Jewish last name and an affinity for understanding all religions.
But a few years back, which coincidentally was a few years after Rubin died in prison, I found myself in his camp. I had set out to write about the propensity for city officials and invited ministers to invoke Jesus' name in the prayers preceding municipal meetings. Thanks to Irv Rubin, who sued the city of Burbank in 1999 to prohibit sectarian prayers, referring by name to any deity -- Allah, YHWH, Jesus, Buddha, the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- had been ruled unconstitutional; the state and U.S. supreme courts let the ruling stand.
As a proponent of the separation of church and state, I couldn't have agreed more. But what I found was that few cities, at least in my community of San Bernardino and eastern Los Angeles counties, paid any mind.
"Lord Jesus, we'd like to give you thanks and praise," Rialto Councilman Joe Sampson began a meeting, which he later defended because the United States is a "Christian country."
I assumed that with time this would change. But that has not been the case. In Ontario, Calif., Tuesday, a day after the mayor apologized for "errors in his private life" that vaguely referred to allegations he had an affair with a city employee, Pastor Larry Enriguez invoked Jesus' words to a mob ready to lynch an adulteress in the eighth chapter of John: "He who is without sin, cast the first stone."
True words. Very true words when talking about, say, your covetous neighbor. But not when dealing with an elected official who may or may not have been diddling a taxpayer-supported subordinate.
More important, though, is the fact that these words are not appropriate for government meetings. I say this as a Christian who believes Jesus' message contains incredible power. But I also say this as someone who believes religion should not be forced into the public square. We all know how this ends up for those not in power. And what if the tables are turned? Judge not lest ye be judged.