A funny thing happened on the way to Convocation. A friend was leaving in protest. She was visibly agitated and she knew she’d found a sympathetic ear once she spotted me. It seems that an opening prayer had been inserted without warning. Too late to register my objection by walking out in solidarity, I simply chose not to attend.
Public prayer is coercive and exclusionary. There’s a captive audience compelled to sit in polite silence as a sign of complicity. In order for a prayer to be truly nonsectarian, it has to be virtually content-free. Even if such a prayer could be devised, would it be satisfying to a sincere believer? The best efforts to contrive such a prayer would still fail to acknowledge nonbelievers as full members of our community.
We congratulate ourselves on our diversity when we rotate invocations among clergy of different faiths in the halls of government. We conveniently overlook the fact that—in each instance—all faiths but one are overlooked. A sectarian prayer from a minority religion does not become neutral merely because the majority finds it exotic. Nor do minority religions exist merely to absolve the intrusions of the majority.
The United States is far more religious than the rest of the developed world. Lacking an international perspective, one might easily assume that the entire world is religious. Secularism is on the rise nationally and in the most prosperous and progressive nations worldwide. Whether or not you worry about alienating an increasingly secular student body, you might ask yourself whether it makes good business sense.
Jesus—legend has it—called public prayer hypocrisy. If character is what you do when no one is looking, public prayer serves no one. At a university that claims to value diversity, compulsory public prayer should not be on the syllabus. Taking pride in each other’s accomplishments is a universal, human value. Surely there’s a more inclusive way to honor our milestones with the solemnity they deserve.