Friday, February 23, 2018

Blumner: The faith that holds power

Sen. Marco Rubio has had a peripatetic journey through various religious leanings. He was born Catholic, then converted to Mormonism as a young boy, then back to Catholic alongside attendance at a Southern Baptist megachurch. But I wonder how Florida's Republican senator would feel if 90 percent of the time the U.S. Senate opened with a prayer praising Allah or asking for Allah's blessings and guidance?

Would that cause him to reflect on "what unites us," as he claims government-sponsored Christian prayer does in a recent column for the Christian Post?

I'm guessing not so much.

Of course there isn't a chance of that scenario coming true. Only two Muslims are in the U.S. House and none are in the Senate. Ninety percent of Congress self-declares as Christian, according to the Congressional Research Service. Rubio will never have to feel religiously excluded or out of place.

His constituents, however, are more diverse. They include 150,000 registered Muslim voters, according to Emerge USA, a nonprofit organization that focuses on civic engagement of minority communities. Why shouldn't they feel equally welcome at government meetings? Or his Jewish constituents, or Buddhist or those who are agnostic or atheist?

Rubio glides over that question in his column, "One Nation, Under God," in which he lambasts the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals for ruling that nearly exclusively Christian prayer practices at town board meetings in the town of Greece in upstate New York were a violation of the establishment clause.

Rubio denounces the ruling, saying it "runs counter to what America has always been." The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal of the case this fall and Rubio has joined an amicus brief with 33 other senators calling on the high court to water down church-state separation to allow for invocations at government meetings that persistently prefer one creed. (Disappointingly, the Obama administration has also weighed in on that side.)

The court's four conservative justices are salivating over this opportunity to invite more religion into government. If they succeed, the practical consequence will be more prayer, overwhelmingly Christian, in official government functions — communicating whose faith holds the power and whose faith doesn't count.

This doesn't trouble Rubio. To him, part of America's "genius" is that "we do not feel threatened by each other's faiths." He points, as an example, to Samuel Adams, a Congregationalist, who demonstrated religious tolerance by picking an Anglican to lead prayer during the First Continental Congress.

Rubio may get history technically right, but he misses history's larger lesson. America's experiment in religious pluralism has succeeded for one reason: the separation of church and state.

Take a snapshot around the globe. In Nigeria, Muslims and Christians are killing each other over control of local government. Israel's mortal battles over territory pit Muslims against Jews. And Iraqis vote in accordance with their Shiite or Sunni sects, knowing the victors will reward fellow adherents with access to power and opportunity.

The United States has avoided the religious strife of other nations by refusing to prefer, even in appearance only, one religion over another.

Still, even here religion has caused deep rifts when it enters politics. Fights over abortion rights, gay marriage and birth control in insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act are largely disagreements over to what extent conservative Christian dictates will be reflected in law.

These battles are still raging, yet Rubio naively states that "America always has been a place where religion brings people together."

From 1999 through 2007, every invocation at Greece's Town Board public meetings was given by Christian clergy members. Most invoked the name of "Jesus" or some other explicitly Christian language. The politicians and audience were expected to participate by bowing their heads, standing and saying "Amen." Two residents, one Jewish and one atheist, complained and finally sued. The town then had four non-Christian prayers before returning to all-Christian.

To Rubio, this is Kumbaya.

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