Christians and the Hindu Senate Invocation

On 12 July 2007, Rajan Zed, a Hindu resident* of Nevada, delivered a mantra for the traditional daily opening prayer in the US Senate.  Few Americans know his name, and fewer know what he said.  What many Americans know, however, is that he was interrupted.

Objectively, three people were removed from the Senate chamber during Zed’s chant.  Depending on the news source cited, the “activists,” “protesters,” “Christian patriots,” or “heroes” were arrested for “praying in Jesus’ name” or “disrupting” the Senate proceedings.

The three people openly said they were Christians, and they knew they could be arrested for what they were going to do.  They also said they were “not heckling,” but hoping their prayer would be a “shield” from God’s wrath over the Hindu “idolatry” in the nation’s Capitol.  James Klingenschmitt, the former Navy Chaplain, was in the Senate chamber and noted the irony of a government that would apparently suppress Christian prayer but allow that of a Hindu.

When the Hindu invitation was announced, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU)–which ordinarily vociferously opposes government-endorsed chaplains–welcomed the incident as a step toward “diversity,” not because they agreed with the concept of government-backed prayer, but because it would make “the Religious Right…go insane.”  The resulting protests gave the AU the evidence they needed to state that the “intolerant Religious Right” (or, on another site:  the “Christian Right”) wanted religious freedom only when it was for Christians.  That assertion, combined with the belief that some want to further Christianity as a favored religion in America, lends credence to the arguments of other anti-Christian movements that seek to oppose “dominionist Christians”–those who want to institutionalize Christianity in the United States.  Michael Weinstein, of Air Force Academy lawsuit fame, is among them.

The Good and the Bad

No American citizen is wrong to point out what they see as apparent hypocrisy in government.  Under the Constitution, people of any religion are free to express themselves with respect to their opinions of the moral decline of the country.  Christians wishing to oppose the Hindu meditation could have even taken the opportunity to point out the religious ignorance of the very Senator who invited Zed; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who is a Mormon, stated:

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.

(Hinduism is a veritable cacophony of religious thoughts which don’t even agree that there is an individual Supreme Being, let alone acknowledge the Deity as a father figure.)

Regrettably, a few people and a few organizations who called themselves Christians “took the bait” and carried out sophomoric tantrums, trying to “shout down” the opposition.  They hindered the cause of American Christians by foregoing proper manners.

They were simply rude.

Granted, it was inappropriate for the AU to categorize an entire faith based on a couple of people whose only known affiliation was Christianity.  Christians, however, gain no favors by being obnoxious.

It is worth noting that many (Christian) religious freedom sites (and this site) have repeatedly supported the concept that the Constitutional right to free exercise applies to all religions.  You can say that a Hindu chant in the Senate is equivalent to idolatry; you can cite is as evidence of the moral decline of America; you can say you believe it is wrong.  You cannot, however, assert that under the US Constitution the Hindu cannot have his say.  The Constitutional freedoms that allow Christians to pray protect the ability of other faith-type systems to do the same.

It is true, too, that it is intellectually and ethically inconsistent to call for “religious freedom” on one hand but demand restriction of non-Christian religions on the other.  This rampant hypocrisy appears to be overstated, however, as the AU failed to cite any organization that was actually guilty of that duplicity.  The only organization the AU names, the American Family Association, reportedly told their readers to call their Congressmen and complain; the AFA, though, is not a “religious freedom” organization.  It seeks to “equip citizens to change the culture to reflect Biblical truth;” a call to complain about non-Biblical mantras in the Senate would be consistent with their stated mission.

The controversy surrounding the Hindu mantra in the Senate is particularly relevant to Christians in the military.  The continuing tradition of Chaplains, public religious expression, and the proper Christian response to other faiths in a multi-faith environment are all important topics to consider.

Christians are free to disagree, but they should do so civilly and with Christian love for their fellow man.  Christians should also remember that for the past several years, anti-religious organizations have been attempting to silence Christianity with similar logic—the belief that the mere existence of religion or passive exposure to it is against their rights.  The Christian response has often been to demand that religion be accommodated—not supported, merely allowed.  Christians have depended on the Constitutional right to free exercise as the legal foundation of their continuing public expression of faith.  To demand that the government silence someone with whom you disagree is to take the side of those who would say the same about Christianity.  Christianity cannot—and should not—be legislated, as it is equally wrong to abdicate the role of the Christian and the church to the government.  It is the free and open debate of ideas that makes America unique.  Religiously speaking, within the bounds of decency and public safety, you are free to have your say, and I am free to disagree with you.

Many organizations that view Christian activism unfavorably saw that the Hindu mantra rankled the “Christian right.”  It is a near certainty that they will now see how far they can push those buttons to have Christians show their “true colors.”  Other recent events in Washington have included the recent decision by the VA to allow Wiccan symbols on VA headstones; just a few weeks ago there was a pagan gathering in DC calling for the installation of pagan Chaplains.

Those who want to poke their fingers in the chest of Christians are almost certainly trying to figure out how to get a Wiccan on the floor of the US Capitol to open the legislative session with a “prayer.”

How will the “Christian Right” respond?  How will you?

*Interestingly, many news sites called Mr. Zed a “chaplain,” though none said what he was the chaplain of.  While a variety of other names might apply to a Hindu religious leader or teacher, no public sites have information on Zed’s religious qualifications other than to say he is a Hindu.  The Hindu American Foundation referred to him as “Shri Rajan Zed,” with the appellation Shri apparently used in Hindu in reference to a “holy man” or in India simply as “Mr.”

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