A pledge, not prayer, for politicians

Taking God off the government agenda, separating church and state

July 13, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Congratulations to the Salisbury City Council for doing something that President Barack Obama and the Republicans can't seem to do: come up with a compromise. Where congressional Republicans seem to think compromise constitutes collaboration (alliteration alert!), members of the Salisbury City Council see compromise as the hybrid fruit of the democratic process.

And huzzah to all that!

Of course, the matter on which the Salisburians compromised has no place in an American government setting, but you still have to appreciate their regard for accommodation.

The Salisburians had to decide if it's appropriate to open City Council meetings with the Lord's Prayer.

As everyone knows, the ol' "Pater Noster" is a Christian prayer, and if elected officials are going to say a prayer before conducting the public's business — and I don't think they should, but that's just me — they shouldn't opt for a prayer of one faith over the rest. It's good that they even considered the question, and better late than never.

According to Salisbury's Daily Times, council members have agreed to a rotation of prayers; they'll invite representatives of local religious groups to offer a different prayer prior to each council session. One week, Christian. One week, Jewish. One week, what? Hindu? Sikh? Islamic? Anyone practicing Shamanism in greater Salisbury? Some weeks, the council can opt for moments of silence, if they wish.

The Frederick County commissioners went for a similar prayer rotation plan in May, though they voted to limit their invitations to ordained religious leaders "affiliated with monotheistic religions with established congregations in Frederick County," according to the local paper, the News-Post. I guess that would eliminate the Hindus, for one, and I can't see Shamans getting on the agenda either.

The government meeting prayer issue is not limited to these jurisdictions by any means.

In Carroll County, we have bowed heads before each meeting of the county commissioners and even Scripture readings that invoke Jesus' name.

Conservatives don't want government to force anything on anybody — efficient light bulbs, highway tolls — but believe it's OK to force their belief in God on the public agenda.

Given the exquisite principle of separation of church and state, I object to prayer before government meetings. It doesn't belong there. If you want to pray — if a politician wants to show off his piousness — go to church, go to synagogue, go to your mosque, go on YouTube. Take some quiet time in your office and pray. Say it to yourself, say it out loud; I don't care. But keep it away from government proceedings.

Instead, we have politicians who must be worried that someone's going to call them godless and eat them alive in the next election, so they play along with the prayer routine. I'm sure many are devout and have faith in God. But I'm not interested in whether a politician prays. It's none of my business. And it should have nothing to do with government.

Obviously, a lot people disagree with me about this.

Here's an objection to the Salisbury Compromise that appeared in the Times on Wednesday: "The council's measure to remove the Lord's Prayer ... is insulting, disrespectful and unpatriotic. This socialist approach to control our established rights continues to weaken the fabric on which our country was founded."

Socialists get blamed for a lot these days. Anyone who believes in quality health care for all or a wall of separation between church and state must be a godless Marxist. Oh, well.

If politicians need a public ritual of some kind, instead of bowing their heads in prayer, they should take a pledge, something like this:

"On my honor, I pledge to keep an open mind, to consider all the facts, to make decisions that are rational and ethical, to act in the best interest of all the people I represent.

"I pledge to vote without regard to my political affiliation or the next election.

"I pledge to honor my commitments to the majority of voters who elected me while not ignoring the least among us and the vulnerable. I promise not to call my opponents names. I promise not to exploit fears and prejudices. I promise to be honest and fair. I promise not to run for re-election if I don't keep all my promises."

I'm still working on it.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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