Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Prayer at the Inauguration

Steve Shiffrin writes that "non-Christians will be alienated – as they should be" by prayers at the inauguration offered in the name of Jesus Christ.  I agree wholeheartedly with Steve S. that some will, like Steve, read the offereing of such a prayer as divisive, laced with an implicit message that non-Christians are in some sense outsiders.  But, my questions are why and how.  Why is this divisive?  How does it send an implicit message to non-Christians that they are outsiders?  Under this logic, isn't having a prayer at all alienating to the atheist? 

In this post, I am trying to think through what it means to live in a pluralistic society, especially when that society stages public pageants like the inauguaration of a president.  Perhaps Steve and others can help me think through this question.

In one form of pluralism, what we might call thin pluralism, the public square and especially public ceremony must be cleansed of anything that divides us so as to avoid offense.  I witnessed this (or at least I think I did) last week when I went to a public elementary school pre-"winter" break production.  When I was a kid in public school, we'd sing Christmas carols, including "Go Tell on the Mountain," etc. on these occasions.  But, in 2008 at this particular school, the production was K-5th graders performing "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."  A society embracing thin pluralism like this would not risk alienating anyone by offering a prayer in Christ's name.  Thin pluralism would, in fact, probably counsel in favor of skipping the inauguraton prayer altogether.

Another form of pluralism, what we might call thick pluralism, would more fully embrace our diversity, inviting people to bring themselves as whole and integrated persons into the public square.  This sort of pluralism would acknowledge a) that the majority of Americans profess faith in Christ and b) that that fact matters.  The faiths of others ought to be respected, but so should the majority faith.  Since religion is not a purely private matter, faith will have (and should have) some public expression.

In a society embracing thick pluralism, a Christian president ought to be allowed to take the oath of office on a Christian Bible and ought to be able to invite Christian ministers to pray publicly in the name of Christ for him and the country he is called to lead.  If Joe Lieberman had been elected president, I would have hoped that he would take the oath on a Jewish Bible and invite rabbis to offer public prayer for him and the nation.  And, if we ever elect a Muslim president, I would hope and expect him to take the oath on the Qur'an (if that is allowed by Islamic faith?) and that the prayers offered would be offered to Allah.  In each of these cases, the President is, I hope, bringing himself fully and publicly before God and placing himself under the authority of God as he understands God, and that ought to bring the rest of us some comfort.

What do you think?


Scaperlanda, Mike | Permalink

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