Show Me Prayer

July 16, 2011

As a result of votes by Missouri state legislators, Missouri voters will see a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in November of 2012 regarding prayer and other religious expressions in public places (the photo, which is on the cover of my new book on confessional politics, is one I took of the Missouri Capitol dome with a church steeple in the foreground). The amendment is not only unnecessary, but potentially problematic. Currently, the religious rights of Missouri citizens are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Missouri Constitution. The latter states:

That all men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; that no human authority can control or interfere with the rights of conscience; that no person shall, on account of his religious persuasion or belief, be rendered ineligible to any public office or trust or profit in this state, be disqualified from testifying or serving as a juror, or be molested in his person or estate; but this section shall not be construed to excuse acts of licentiousness, nor to justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace or safety of the state, or with the rights of others.
Clearly, nothing more is needed. Yet, voters will be asked to make that section nearly five times as long with language that muddies the water. As Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted, the amendment could actually take away people's religious rights by condoning official religious activities. Such actions could put the Missouri Constitution in opposition to the U.S. Constitution.

The legislation which passed both the Missouri House and Senate this year is essentially the same as that which has passed the Missouri House for five years but always failed in the Missouri Senate. Back in 2008, I wrote a Religion Dispatches column critiquing that year's version of the legislation. I argued that the legislation appeared to be using prayer for political purposes, especially since Republican legislators that year defeated an amendment to move the proposal from the November general election ballot to the August primary ballot. If there really was a problem, one would expect legislators to want it fixed sooner. Instead, it seemed obvious that they were trying to use it to rally voters to their side. The fact that the version that passed this year will not appear on a ballot until the November 2012 general election--even though there are other state-wide election dates between now and then--suggests that this is still more about politics than prayer. Unfortunately, prayer is often used for political purposes in our age of confessional politics. Here is part of what I argued in my 2008 column:
I find such brazen political co-opting of a sacred moment to be blasphemous. Prayer is not a political football! Ironically, those who self-righteously proclaim they are standing up for prayer seem to have forgotten the teachings of Jesus. As Jesus explained in his Sermon on the Mount, we should pray in secret in our closet and not publicly like hypocrites so that all can see us. Rather than praying quietly, some of Missouri's legislators apparently want everyone to see them proudly proclaiming their faith.
It seems likely this amendment will pass because it sounds so innocent. Hopefully, however, voters will reject the amendment and those who try to use prayer for political gain.

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