Tom Klein: Why National Prayer Day should be truly inclusive

By now the news has spread around this city; Bowling Green leaders and many citizens are not pleased.   Chaplain Kristel Asmus, who again serves as coordinator of our the National Prayer Day, is directing the event coming in May, 2019, and is restricting speakers to Christians.  No Muslims, no Mormons.  And, of course, no Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is.  All those religious groups represent spiritual causes preaching compassion and love.  Christian-only speakers conflict with the nationally established purpose of the event — to recognize and celebrate the religious and ethnic diversity of America. Anything other than inclusiveness is harmful and dangerous.

Some history might help explain what’s at stake here. A national prayer day was formalized in 1952 when a joint resolution by Congress was signed by President Truman. In 1988, the law was amended and then signed by President Reagan. For its long history, the prayer-day speakers have spanned diverse faith communities with the purpose being to spread the word of God and love to unite the country.

Spiritual extremism happens when someone claims a monopoly on truth.  The greatest danger of such extremism is the wars accompanied by a fundamentalist cause and character, with economic and historical components connected.  In our own time there’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian Civil War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Then, there’s the Thirty Years War, the Crusades, the Sudanese Civil War, and the Nigerian Civil War.  Of course Christian-only speakers in our small town will not spark a war. But when such practices spread across the US, that can happen.

It’s a rare event when one person who, ironically, has been in charge of this event for twenty years and decides to radically modify it.  We need to understand why a chaplain might take such an extreme position, converting a healing and unifying message into one where there is only one right message, and why serious harms can result.  Such an attitude is at best disturbing.  The chaplain, with confirmation from the National Day of Prayer Task Force, told the BG Independent News that “Mormons could not participate in leadership teams or participate publicly in the prayer event.”  Looking at that restrictive attitude through the lens of theologian James Fowler’s framework on stages of spiritual development is enlightening.     Much like Piaget’s work examining the cognitive development of children and adolescents, Fowler’s research takes the next step and includes persons of all ages to see how their thinking changes as they grow up, moving from stage to stage.

To simplify Fowler’s conclusions, early stages of spiritual development see children thinking literally and concretely.  “Mom said no and I better not touch that.”  Adolescents and younger adults discover beliefs without questioning them.  “Mom and Dad are agnostics.  I am too.”  In early adulthood, persons can learn that they’re in a box and need to look outside of it.  “Maybe poetry isn’t as bad as I thought.”  In mid-life a person can approach people and ideas by realizing that some experiences are not rational, logical or easily understood, moving from either/or to both/and and getting to know people of other faiths and other life orientations.  “I used to think that men with beards are weird.  Now I’m not so sure.”    Finally, at the stage for those approaching maturity and old age, “universalizing,” as theologian Rose Anne Karesh writes, lets us see “all humanity as one brotherhood, and taking profound, self-sacrificing action to care for all of humanity.” (Of course some individuals don’t grow according to Fowler’s ladder.  There are many youth who live as saints and Mother Teresa’s.)

It may be fitting to conclude with one of the great Christian theologians of our time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who lived between the two world wars and was imprisoned for resistance to Hitler and occupied a cell with many others, especially non-Christians.  Yet, he saw the good in all of them – they had risked their lives in an attempt to destroy Hitler and the Third Reich.  Bonhoeffer died in a German prison camp.  

Even today, 73 years after his death, Bonhoeffer’s life is a challenge for us. It asks us, together, to pursue social justice even when it’s not popular, to protect and defend the persecuted and to follow God’s message in all its forms, even those that live outside organized religion.  Bonhoeffer says, “By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”  (The Cost of Discipleship)

Protection by the First Amendment?  We must live with that, and we choose to.  The KKK was able to march in Skokie, IL.  So be it.  And Kristen can preach in May. We may have lost the Courthouse steps for next year but our ministerial association and NIOT are able to mount an alternative gathering. There, speakers of all stripes and faces can speak loud and clear a polyglot of languages.

Tom Klein

Bowling Green