Inclusion and Exclusion in State-Church Separation

Bradlee Dean’s guest prayer (video here) before the Minnesota House of Representatives on 20 May has caused something of a stir—both for the prayer’s content and Dean’s homophobic ethos. In his prayer, made at the behest of House Speaker Kurt Zellers (who afterward denounced Dean and apologized for allowing him to speak on the floor), Dean implied that President Obama is not a Christian, and he consciously shrugged off the non-sectarian tradition of legislative prayers by calling on Jesus by name.

E Pluribus Unum coin detailAfter the prayer, Representative Terry Morrow gave a brief statement condemning Dean’s prayer. Jim Aune links to video of Morrow’s statement on the Blogora: “Terry Morrow: professor, Christian, legislator, rhetorician—takes on Christianist hate.” 

I appreciate Morrow’s concern for the divisive effect of Dean’s prayer, and I thank him for speaking up. However, extremist positions such as Dean’s, troubling as they are, aren’t the most difficult problem in church-state separation arguments. A more subtle difficulty can be seen when considering Morrow’s statement. He says: 

I’ve always thought of the House prayer as an opportunity for us to contemplate together, to come together, before the heated battle that can sometimes be part of partisan politics. It was an expectation, and a hope, that I thought was fulfilled everyday when I came into this chamber before today…. It has been my understanding that part of the justification, part of the explanation for starting our sessions with a prayer, was that those prayers would never exclude, never marginalize a Minnesotan on the basis of their faith, on the basis of their beliefs, on the basis of who they are…. 

Dean’s beliefs are divisive and marginalizing (evidence of his bigotry against people within the LGBT and Muslim communities is not difficult to find), but would a non-sectarian prayer from a person who does not share Dean’s bigotry provide the inclusion Morrow speaks of? 

Inclusion isn’t achieved according to those who object to legislative prayer and state-funded chaplains. Non-sectarian prayers risk crossing the line that Justice O’Connor described in Lynch v. Donnelly of “send[ing] a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.” 

The risk is evident when looking at the prayer from the official Minnesota House Chaplain Rev. Grady St. Dennis (who spoke after Dean’s prayer). St. Dennis’ prayer was one of thanks to a deity [video]: 

We thank you for the grace we know we have from you. We thank you for the love that is your way in this life. We thank you today for the grace that is between individuals here in this house. Thank you for the strength that comes when we put our hands together and work in the way in which you’ve guided us. 

This prayer is non-sectarian insofar as not privileging one Christian denomination over others, but it isn’t inclusive of the full range of religious viewpoints. St. Dennis’s prayer of thanks to a single deity who acts on humans in this world cannot include atheists, agnostics, some Buddhists, Hindus, deists, and others. 

The courts have found that legislative prayer does not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion, so long as that prayer is a traditional practice that commemorates the solemnity of the governmental office and is offered in a non-sectarian manner. 

The argument can certainly be made that these legislative prayers do not have an effect on non-adherents great enough to merit ending the practice, though that question cannot be debated in terms of exclusion vs. inclusion. The question is instead one of degrees of acceptable or unacceptable exclusion (a question in the quality stasis). The claim would be that the benefits from a prayer that speaks to the majority of legislators and citizens outweigh the costs of that same prayer excluding a minority. 

But this isn’t the argument we find in church-state debates. Instead there are perspectives such as Morrow’s that assume theistic prayers are in fact inclusive of all religious views, simply ignoring non-theistic and polytheistic perspectives. There is a similar perspective, common in arguments invoking ceremonial deism, that claim long-standing religious practices (such as legislative prayers or the national motto “In God We Trust”) are inclusive because they have been stripped of their religious significance through rote repetition. 

Both of these arguments assume inclusion where none is to be found, and the second has the added dubious distinction of voiding religious meaning from practices that hold deep religious meaning for adherents (not least of whom include the chaplains who give legislative prayers). 

Extremist rhetoric such as that practiced by Dean poses an impediment to healthy democracy, but so too does a confused discourse that promotes exclusion as inclusion.

“Pluribus” adapted from Gene Hsu CC license

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About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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