Saturday, July 14, 2007

If the Senate can accept other religions, can all Americans do it?

On Friday, for the first time in its 218-year history, the United States Senate invited a Hindu cleric to lead the Senate in its usual opening prayer - and this time, all 100 Senate members followed Mr. Rajan Zed in saying a simple Hindu prayer, despite the arrival of protesters who opposed Zed's presence.

The full text of the prayer was released by the Congressional Record, and seems fairly nondenominational to me. The following words seem to me as though they could be a prayer applying to any faith:
Let us pray. We meditate on the transcendental Glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the Heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.

Lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us.

May the Senators strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world, performing their duties with the welfare of others always in mind, because by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. May they work carefully and wisely, guided by compassion and without thought for themselves.

United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be as one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord.

Peace, peace, peace be unto all. Lord, we ask You to comfort the family of former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Amen.
All was not well, however: conservative Christian groups were in uproar; some even came to the Senate to protest. Reverend Flip Benham, head of the group Operation Save America, released a press release about the incident, saying that the Senate "was violated by a false Hindu god. The Senate was opened with a Hindu prayer placing the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the One True God, Jesus Christ. This would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers. Not one Senator had the backbone to stand as our Founding Fathers stood. They stood on the Gospel of Jesus Christ!"

Three protesters tried to shout down Zed as he led the prayer, yelling things like "This is an abomination!" and "We are Christians and patriots!" All three were arrested and charged with disrupting Congress. But it is very disheartening to see the degree of intolerance that some people in America have towards others, despite all the progress we thought we had made.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, summed it up best. He said that the protest "shows the intolerance of many religious right activists. They say they want more religion in the public square, but it's clear they mean only their religion."

To me, this whole incident seems to beg the question: is prayer appropriate in the Senate anymore? The Senate has been opening each morning for 218 years with a prayer. But in today's increasingly diverse and secular society, this may have become an outdated custom that needs to be changed. America may have been built by a group of people who happened to be Christians, but today, we are not a Christian nation; we are a secular nation that is supposed to be welcoming and tolerant of all faiths. If we truly want separation of church and state, doing away with prayers in Congress altogether would be the right move; however, welcoming in a clergyman of another faith - if only for a day - is at least a good step in the direction of religious tolerance. Will we see a Muslim cleric next? I can only imagine the protests against that would be much worse, sadly...

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), himself a Mormon, should be applauded for inviting Zed to the Senate. He defended his decision after the protesters had been removed, saying: "If people have any misunderstanding about Indians and Hindus," Reid said, "all they have to do is think of Gandhi," a man "who gave his life for peace. I think it speaks well of our country that someone representing the faith of about a billion people comes here and can speak in communication with our heavenly Father regarding peace."

It is a big step for the US Senate to invite a clergyman of another faith, a faith that is foreign to most Americans, into their chambers and allow him to lead them in prayer. It is one way in which the Senate has actually been able to stand as a shining example to the rest of America, at a time when Congress's approval ratings are low. If the Senate can be this tolerant and accepting of other faiths, is the rest of America not far behind? I hope so.

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