Government Prayer Isn’t Inclusive—Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise

Flanked by members of faith based communities, US President Donald Trump signs a proclamation declaring May 3 as National Day of Prayer, during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House on May 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Religion is one of humanity’s most divisive forces. This is precisely why the Founders chose to keep religion out of our government. Once upon a time, even our Supreme Court understood this:

“The Framers and the citizens of their time intended to guard … against the civic divisiveness that follows when the government weighs in on one side of religious debate; nothing does a better job of roiling society.”

In the run up to Easter and the National Day of Prayer (May 2), chaplains and guest chaplains around the nation have sowed religious division and discord as they delivered prayers at state legislatures, and now, federal courts are giving them their stamp of approval.

In the Pennsylvania Statehouse, a state rep delivered a jaw-dropping invocation meant to intimidate the state’s first female Muslim legislator on the very day she was sworn in. The House quickly divided along religious lines in the wake of the “Jesus”-laden prayer.

The Georgia House suffered through a sermon and then a prayer, both of which condemned all non-Christians—all non-Baptists, really—to an eternity of torture and torment. Surely not the best way to work across the aisle or to foster compromise.

Just like Pennsylvania, a preacher told the Virginia House of Delegates that “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.”

Oh, and for good measure he also asked that those who reject Jesus be tortured: “God, I pray that you would convict us of that day where those who love you will be rewarded, and those who reject you will be sentenced.” He also asked for “forgiveness for the millions and millions of innocent lives that have been murdered for the sake of convenience.” Not so much building bridges as burning them.


The Founding Myth book cover

Then, on Good Friday, the second-highest court in the land decided that the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives could require every prayer delivered by guest chaplains to be religious. This effectively discriminates against atheists (including the atheist who brought the case, Dan Barker), and even some minority religions, such as Buddhism. The court explained, “even if, as Barker alleges, he was actually excluded simply for being an atheist, he is entitled to none of the relief he seeks. … We could not order [the chaplain] to allow Barker to deliver a secular invocation because the House permissibly limits the opening prayer to religious prayer.”

Intimidation, hellfire, division, and discrimination—these are the fruits of sectarian religion in our government.

Americans are abandoning the church at a dizzying rate and, for the first time in history, nonreligious Americans are the largest demographic group in the country. There are more “nones”—people who check “none of the above” on a religious survey—than there are Catholics or evangelicals.

The age of Christian privilege is coming to an end in America. The Religious Right is raging against the dying of its religious privilege and the signs are everywhere: vocal Christian nationalism, clamoring to redefine religious liberty as a license to discriminate, the insistence that they are somehow persecuted (even while they make up nearly 90 percent of Congress and a majority on the Supreme Court), and the contentious government prayers.

We have a separation of state and church in this country because we are a diverse nation. Our nation’s original de facto motto spoke of strength through diversity, e pluribus unum. Of many, one. Of many people, one nation. Governments that derive their power from the people cannot take sides in a religious debate or discussion without alienating many of those people, without selecting one of the claimed truths, however inadvertently. Government neutrality on religion is not just constitutionally mandated, but a way to ensure our government functions. It removes one of our two verboten topics, religion, from the other, politics.

Government prayer doesn’t bring We the People together, it drives us apart, and it’s doing so at a time when there is already more than enough strife and discord. It’s time to do away with this archaic and divisive tradition.