Letter from the Editor

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The prayer: free speech, open eyes

An article that we did as a local minister expressed his concern about the opening day prayer at the Iowa House of Representatives has raised a great deal of fuss, it seems, and more input to the paper's website than on any issue in a long, long time.

Probably ninety-five percent of the comments we received indicate that the writers don't think a Muslim imam has any business speaking in a public setting such as this in Iowa.

Frankly, I'm about as disturbed by that as I am by the imam's statement itself.

Preserving the rights of people to live, worship and speak freely, as they believe, is a large part of what our young soldiers have been fighting for over the last six long and frustrating years.

We needn't like what we hear, or necessarily broadcast it in our seat of government. And we have the right and perhaps the responsibility to say so. But suggesting to barr any group of people from their right to speak would be counter-productive.

Part of this prayer did indeed seem inappropriate and out of place, and there is no need to bow to the altar of political correctness and pretend otherwise.

The very fact that we are having a discourse as a result is not a bad thing. Speak up and out. Free speech and open eyes are related conditions.

To be honest, before this issue came up, I wasn't aware that the Iowa Legislature was saying prayers every day.

It makes one wonder - government is so adamant about kids not being able to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school or a prayer at graduation, out of concern for this supposed separation of church and state, when Congress has a prayer for itself on a daily basis and statehouses do, too.

My personal philosophy is that prayer never hurts and as long as a person isn't forced into any form of worship, and it isn't disriptive to the other's rights and the public good, live and let pray.

It might take some serious prayer, for example, to balance this year's state budget. Politics sure hasn't managed it.

The problem with such a public religious policy is, however, that it's tough to pick and choose when it comes to whose religious beliefs you are willing to hear.

As I understand it, different members of the legislature often invite different ministers in to say the opening prayer as something of a tradition, and I doubt that in the past this has ever done anyone a lick of harm.

I'm told that a Catholic priest gave the opening day prayer over in the senate, and no one would have thought to question it.

And while a Muslim imam might well have raised some eyebrows for rural Iowa legislators, if not for one line uttered during the prayer, I'm thinking that people would have politely let it go, as Iowans tend to do.

I didn't hear it personally, so I can't speak to inflection or intention, but the quote as I've seen it is, "... give us victory over those that disbelieve."

For obvious reasons, we are a bit on edge and sensitively watchful in this country at this time. We need to be.

I was raised to think of prayer as a peaceful thing, certainly not a poltical thing, and I'm not sure this one would have fit the definition at all.

PC era aside, it gives me a little bit of the creeps.

There is a semantically small but philosophically gigantic difference between your basic "deliver us from evil" and calling for "victory over" those who do not believe as we do.

I don't imagine that a Methodist minister would likely be invited to share his Christian doctrine in an official capacity to begin a session of the municipality council in Mecca, though I don't know that first hand. I do know that U.S. soldiers were warned against any overt Christian celebration of the Christian holiday in Iraq.

Our openness in a way defines us.

The lawmaker who invited the imam defended the choice of the imam's words as simply a call for religious belief. And if that is true, much fuss has been made unnecessarily.

Local Representative Gary Worthan was more concerned, saying he didn't appreciate jihadist statements made in the people's House of Iowa. The term "disbeliever" is synonymous with "infidel," he said, and the only way to achieve victory in such a mindset would be to convert people to Islam - or kill them.

If that is what was intended by that prayer, it needs to be denounced.

Worthan is a very grounded man, by the way. He has two sons in the military who were called to dangerous duty in the war on terrorism. I don't think anyone would question his right to speak out here.

If the legislature is going to allow prayers, it would be difficult and probably wrong to choose which religions can be heard from and which should be silenced. Where would censorship stop?

Of course, it could appoint a chaplain to oversee the process, or seek to limit prayers to non-denominational messages. It could state a policy that the messages are not to be hurtful to others, but of course, such a thing would be hard to define.

The beauty is that in America and in Iowa, people are welcomed to speak their mind and their beliefs, and this is something to be proud of, even when we don't agree with all we hear.

At that same time, when we hear something that concerns us, we have equal freedom to speak out about it without being labeled as bigoted or intolerant just for having the nerve to disagree. (Claiming that all Muslims are terrorist sympathizers would be.)

You can't have religious freedom only to a point. But you sure can talk about right and wrong when you feel you see it.

We can't expect the Iowa Legislature to solve global religious dischord for us. So perhaps we should get back to that budget, and say our own little prayers for all the wisdom we can gather in a world that seems increasingly unsettling.