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Christians, to the closets!

The other day, Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition announced that the powerful advocacy group would be launching a $2,000,000 campaign to promote the Religious Freedom Amendment, a proposal introduced in congress by Rep. Ernest Istook of Illinois.

It's a disarmingly simply, and disingenuous piece of legislation; and unlike most of the convoluted legalese which you encounter in the Congressional Record, it is brief.

"To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."

"There are all sorts of good reasons to oppose the Religious Freedom Amendment, but one seems to have eluded the different groups squabbling over school prayer, and especially Ralph Reed, the guy who's always talking about this country needing to return to its religious roots..."
There are all sorts of good reasons to oppose the Religious Freedom Amendment, but one seems to have eluded the different groups squabbling over school prayer, and especially Ralph Reed, the guy who's always talking about this country needing to return to its religious roots.

The whole purpose of the Religious Freedom Amendment is against god's law.

Yeah, you're reading that right. It's against god's law. And I'll be specific about the god I'm talking about, so that Judge Roy Moore down in Alabama does not think that this reference is to Buddha, or Krishna, or Allah or some other deity.

The God of the Old and New Testament wouldn't like the Religious Freedom Amendment, and neither would his anointed son, Jesus. It's right there in the Bible.

Mr. Reed has become a loquacious spokesman for those who insist that religious expression needs to be taken out of the nation's churches, synagogues and temples, and dragged into the public square. That includes public schools, courthouses, meetings of government bodies and public land in general. Not all religious groups agree with this proposal, of course, and those of us who profess no belief perceive this as more legalized rough-stuff from "prayer bullies" who want to transform secular institutions into pulpits.

But someone should go up to Mr. Reed, his boss Pat Robertson, and all of those religious and political leaders clamoring for public prayer and passage of the Religious Freedom Amendment, and inform them that if they wish to be true, consistent Christian, they should head for the nearest closet.

Don't hit that delete button!

This isn't some ad hominem cheap shot. It's well-intentioned advice right from the "good book" itself.

See, the Bible doesn't say anything about the need for a law like the Religious Freedom Amendment. The Old Testament especially is filled with some pretty scary stuff, such as stoning transgressors to death, or bringing havoc and suffering upon sinners in order to avoid the more wrathful judgment of Jehovah, but the Bible is also very explicit on how, and when the faithful -- like Ralph Reed and members of the Christian Coalition -- should pray. They shouldn't be doing it in school classrooms, or graduation ceremonies, or football games (does god take sides? Is he betting on the Bulls?). Prayer, if it is to obey the requirements of the good book, should not be taking place at the opening of the U.S. Congress, or the President's Prayer Breakfast, or in front of city hall buildings and state capitols during the National Day of Prayer. It should not be taking place when a bunch of Promise Keepers do a wave for Jesus in a stadium, or when the Pope holds some outdoor mass in Central Park. Nope.

Target gif.
Prayer belongs in the closet, and with the door shut, please. If you don't believe me, just grab the nearest Bible, and check out Matthew, 6:5-5. It's right there, in dry ink. Some believed that it is the incontrovertible, literal, inspired and revealed word of a deity.

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they may be seen of men... But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret..."

It seems to me that from a Christian believer point of view (which Ralph Reed and Rep. Ernest Istook insist they have), Matthew was a fellow in the know. He was identified as a customs collector, a job which does leave open the possibility of not always being on the up-and-up, but his own memoirs as well as the writings of Mark and Luke, claim that he was inspired to follow Jesus as one of the Twelve Apostles. Even more important, his is given the status of being the First Gospel.

Matthew lived long before the era of television evangelism, political conventions and back-room lobbying though, but the early Christian movement was imbued with some of the enthusiasm and rhetorical fire that you witness in our era at a Promise Keepers rally, or a Benny Hinnn or Billy Graham salvation infomercial. It was also a bit of a problem. The "truth" as taught by Jesus Christ was usually relayed through oral tradition or hurried scribblings, or traveling apostles and missionaries. It would take nearly three centuries before any standardized creed and doctrine could be sorted out at the First Council of Nicea in Asia Minor in 325. Emperor Constantine, in his era as perceptive a political operator as Ralph Reed is today, ordered the Bishops of the church to gather and devise a test of faith. Not all religious opinions made the first cut, of course. Heretical writings were disposed of, and sects like Arianism were driven out. But Matthews writings survived, which suggests that the long-dead customs official-turned-apostle had an inside track on "truth."

Over the centuries, of course, the institutionalized church established at Nicea has split over doctrinal points to where the goal of "ecumenism" remains as elusive as a balanced budget, or a winning year for the Cubs. But just about all of the sects and denominations which describe themselves as "Christian" include Matthew in their set of theopolitically correct writings.

So why don't they bother reading his words?

There are plenty of good reasons for not stampeding the Religious Freedom Amendment through congress and making it the law of the land, overturning the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and a considerable body of reasoned jurisprudence in the process. When Ralph Reed talks about the "hostility" of government for organized religion, he's really confusing belligerence with neutrality. When Pat Robertson conjures a dark and menacing vision of a world where "people of faith" aren't permitted to worship, he ignores the fact that just about every yellow pages directory in the country is filled with listings under the heading of CHURCHES. There are plenty of places where the faithful can go in order to pray, sing, chant, genuflect, burn incense and do whatever else they consider necessary to propitiate the god or gods of their choice. If they can't find a congregation, they are free to form one of their own; they get a tax break for doing so, which is more than be said for the undercapitalized dreamer trying to start his or her own small business.

In fact, there are more churches in this country than there are pizza parlors!

I sincerely doubt that Ralph Reed, Billy Graham and the Pope are going to follow this advice, or pay much heed to what Matthew had to say nearly 20 centuries ago, even if they opine in public that the writings are inspired by the very deity they claim to worship. Prayer in public feels so good and self-righteous, and when closely linked to the symbols and institutions of government authority, resonates with a kind of "official seal of approval." That's why so many prayer advocates, when compelled to fess up, admit that they support a specific kind of prayer to a specific deity. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a member of the Mormon Church and a poster-boy for the Christian Coalition did flirt with ecumenism several years ago in sponsoring a Muslim clergyman to give the opening invocation for the Senate. But how would he feel if a Hindu guru wanted the same privilege? Or a minister with the Church of Scientology? What if the lead singer for the Marilyn Manson rock band wanted to bless the legislative solons? He's reportedly a member of the Church of Satan.

No, that wouldn't do at all, and deep down Ralph Reed and Mr. Istook know that. Public prayer is politically sexy, and a winning issue at the ballot box come November. The advice, or inspired word from Matthew gets subsumed beneath a pile of political speeches, focus-group studies, and slick campaign proposals. The Bible may say otherwise, but religious leaders, and their political groupies, are pretty emphatic. The public square is definitely for prayer and other religious display.

The only items for closets are sex acts and Ellen DeGeneres, and people like her. And some kook named Matthew.

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