June 22, 2019

Satanic Prayer Sparks Internet Firestorm

A prayer spoken at a town hall meeting in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Borough on June 18th of this year prompted several attendees and officials to walk out, as well as sparking protests outside the borough’s administration building. Controversy over public prayer is not a new thing in the United States, but the prayer spoken at this meeting held south of Anchorage has turned the usual debate on its head.

Wikimedia Commons
You see, the people protesting this prayer are Christians, as the prayer was delivered by Satanic Temple member Iris Fontana, whose closing words of the prayer were, “Hail Satan.”

Didn't see that one coming? You're not alone. But maybe we shouldn't be surprised by this at all.

Christians in the United States have long been chafing at restrictions placed on prayer at public events. The protests against prayers at gatherings such as public sporting events or town meetings have typically been spearheaded by atheists who claim that such prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment:

“Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

One of the most hotly contested areas has been regarding prayer in schools. Specifically, courts have ruled that school faculty or administrators cannot lead the student body in prayer. Many commentators have interpreted this as a blanket ban against prayer on school campuses, though student-lead prayer, Bible study, and even Christian clubs have been permitted and can be found in many public schools, even today.

Religion and politics often mix about as well as sodium and water, leading to explosive protests and fiery debates. Recently, lawmakers in Missouri approved the teaching of Bible classes in public schools in a move praised by many Christians and condemned by other groups. Last year, many Christians were incensed by the presence of a Satanic monument at the Arkansas state capitol, and there is ongoing debate over the growing presence of Islamic prayers on school campuses.

While the controversy is not new, the firestorm currently erupting across Christian newsfeeds (including my own) on Facebook and other platforms highlights an aspect of the issue which has been hiding in the background until recently: the Establishment Clause must be applied to all religions equally, whether to allow or to bar expressions of faith in public venues.

As a Christian myself, I certainly understand how disturbing it would be to hear a prayer to Satan at a public event like a town hall meeting or school sporting event. I would likely have joined the walkout, as well. But from the point of view of the government and the Constitution, one of two solutions must win out. Either…

1) All public prayer will be banned at non-religious public events,
2) Public prayer at public events must be allowed for any and all religions.

I can’t say for certain which of these two options is superior (though my Libertarian streak always opposes governmental interference and bans), but one thing I am certain of: there can be no third path, unless we do away with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause altogether. If we are actually committed to the concept of religious freedom, then the government must treat all religions equally - or rather, remain equally distant from all religions. In other words, if we want the government to not interfere with Christian religious expression, then we must insure that the government does not interfere with other religions, either.

As a Christian, I understand the frustration which many of us feel over topics such as prayer in schools, removing the Ten Commandments from courthouses, and other such limitations upon what we view as the free practice of our faith. But we must remember that our freedom to express our faith does not (and must not) override that same freedom as it applies to people who hold to a different faith, or to no faith at all.

Or as it was once explained to me as a child, my freedom to spin my arms round and round in a circle stops before I hit you in the face.

Honestly, I think there is a huge lesson to be learned from Tuesdays’ town meeting in Alaska.

Suddenly, the shoe is on the other foot. We Christians found ourselves being subjected to a religious idea which we believe to be, if I dare be bluntly honest, absolutely abhorrent. While some Christians take offense if they hear a Muslim pray to Allah, there is at least the argument that Allah, to whom the Muslim prays, is the same God the Jews and Christians pray to (yes, I know there are many who would disagree, but for the sake of argument, just roll with me here for a moment). A prayer to Satan, on the other hand? Satan, who is the original super-villain of the Bible? Lucifer, the ultimate evil? The Prince of Lies? The Devil, the absolute antithesis of our holy and righteous God? No, that is another thing entirely.

Surely, if there is another worldview which the Christian could justifiably take offense to, it is that of the Satanist. And it is this ideology which was put on public display at a non-religious civic meeting last Tuesday, shocking many Christians to their core.

What we Christians have to understand is this: that very same shock and disgust which we feel upon hearing about this Satanic prayer is exactly how many non-Christians feel when we, for example, pray before a high school football game.

If we are to claim that putting a halt to Christian prayer at a sporting event is a violation of our religious freedom, then how are we to respond to this particular Satanic prayer which is currently making headlines? How is it any different for the government to suppress their prayers than when the government suppresses our own?

Oh yes, fellow Christians, I understand that it is offensive. But the Bible instructs us about situations like this. To start with, we are told not to judge those who are outside the faith. God will do that. We are also told to obey our government, as long as it doesn’t cause us to disobey God. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, as it were.

Consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who rightly refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. Did they go on a political crusade to stop anyone else from following the king’s command? No, they did not. They each chose the only form of control which we are actually allowed: self-control.

Consider Esther, who did intervene in a political conflict. Did she demand that the king change the law? No. She begged for mercy on behalf of her people, knowing full well that she might legally be put to death for revealing herself as a Jew.

Consider Jesus, who says
“But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.”

Our responsibility to Christ begins and ends with ourselves. Yes, I understand the Great Commission and the need to teach our children about God, but we cannot force our belief in God upon someone else. Not only is it simply impossible to do so, it would be wrong, even if we could. Jesus tells us that if some refuse to listen, we are to dust off our feet and move along.

Jesus entered the world in the midst of the Roman occupation of Israel. Until the Romans came, Israel had been run by a religious government, and if you have read your Bible, you should know that these Pharisees were the first group of people Jesus regularly took to the woodshed.

Any human government which also has power over religion is bound to be as hypocritical as that which Jesus repeatedly criticized. If we give our government the power to outlaw Islam, Buddhism, or even Satanism, or to selectively silence the voices of any other religious group, we are simultaneously inviting our government to turn its power against us if and when it so chooses.

Some say that it has already done that.
They may be right.

If so, what would Jesus have us do?

The following words from Joshua, in my mind at least, seem to provide the only viable path forward:

And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

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