Evangelical Christians gathered in Richmond, Virginia this morning to "Save the Chaplains." This rally was organized to protest the recently enacted policy that all Virginia State Police chaplains (who are paid with taxpayer funds) must offer non-sectarian prayers at public events. Five or six Christian chaplains (some accounts put the number at five, others at six) resigned their positions rather than adhere to the policy. They claim that the prohibition against praying "in Jesus' name" amounts to persecution and a restriction on their ability to practice their specific form of faith.
These chaplains and their supporters have made at least three mistakes in this situation. First, they are behaving as if the phrase, "in Jesus' name" is a formulaic saying with magical powers. They seem to believe that if they pray without tacking these words onto the end of their prayers, then the prayers will be invalidated; apparently, they believe that God will only respond to prayers that fit a precise rubric. Such an understanding is at odds with the less legalistic view of many Christians that God's grace is boundless and prayer is a dynamic act of communication. Second, they have displayed a remarkable (dare I say, un-Christian?) insensitivity to the religious sensibilities of non-Christians. Can't they offer aid and comfort to people without shoving the Christian religion down their throats at every opportunity? Must every encounter be viewed as an occasion for outspoken testimony and proselytization? These people don't seem to realize that the ministry of presence often speaks more eloquently than the ministry of preaching. Third, by resigning their chaplaincies (they have been reassigned to other duties), the chaplains have removed themselves completely from opportunities to offer Christian ministries of any sort under the auspices of the Virginia State Police. They think that, by doing so, they have stood up for Jesus. Instead, they've merely defended Christianity as a narrowly defined institution, and abandoned an active Christianity that ministers to hurting people in times of need. Instead of standing up for Jesus, they've actually abandoned their posts and stood down from what they presumably regard as their divinely sanctioned responsibilities.
What I'm going to say next may surprise you: I believe that state-sponsored chaplaincies should be eliminated. First of all, the USA is a secular, multicultural society in which religious activities and civic activities should be performed separately. There is no good reason to pray at a police academy graduation, a meeting of the state legislature, a Memorial Day commemoration, or any other public function at which a state police chaplain would conceivably be on duty. Obviously, sectarian prayers are problematic in a multicultural country in which most people hold a wide array of religious beliefs, and in which many others hold no religious beliefs. Moreover, I suspect that non-sectarian prayers are offensive to adherents of many faiths for precisely the reasons cited by the chaplains in this story: they are not explicit confessions of a particular sort of faith. Since attempts to include believers of all faiths in civic events are inevitably doomed to failure, the wisest move would be to keep civic affairs secular and to keep religion in houses of worship.
Secondly, other duties that chaplains (presumably) fulfill could be done at least as effectively by professional counselors, social workers and the like. For example, a trained grief counselor could accompany a state police officer dispatched to inform someone that a loved one has died in an auto accident. If the grieving person asks the counselor to call a priest, rabbi, iman or pastor, the counselor could do so. How would you feel, for instance, if a Muslim iman arrived at your door and offered to pray to Allah on your behalf? It could happen, since chaplaincies need not (and should not) be confined to Christians. Again, representatives of the state should not represent any particular deity while acting in their official capacities.
It's time for Christians to relinquish the privileged position that Christianity has held in American society and to recognize the legitimate rights and concerns of people who adhere to other faiths, as well as the rights and concerns of non-believers. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best way to protect freedom of religion is to respect all by keeping the religious and civic spheres distinct from each other.
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