By now, every alert North Dakotan must know about last week’s rather unorthodox take on religious freedom by the state House of Representatives. Republican leaders in District 24 (Valley City area) took to the Web to sound the alarm: A Muslim, the president of the Bismarck Muslim Community Center, was going to offer the daily invocation in the House chamber.
The original post made it clear that this was an affront to Christian North Dakota.
[Excerpt from post]
I respect people of other religious and ethnic backgrounds, but given the current situation in world affairs I view this as political correctness at its worst. Let’s face it, the very enemy our country has been perpetually at war with since Sept. 11, 2001, uses the words of the Koran and the example of their founding Prophet Muhammad as justification for the slaughter of infidels (Christians, anybody not Muslim) the world over. Does this amount to the worst form of political correctness? What do you think?
Inspired by his question, one of the district’s Facebook friends responded:
Fargo has seen a huge influx of Muslims since Obama took office. Why do you think that is? They’re not working on the oil rigs, that’s for sure. They’re working in the malls, supermarkets, manufacturing companies, convenience stores. WHY are they here? It isn’t because of the weather. …Wake up! We will be at war in our own country with a vicious, merciless enemy allowed to slowly slide in under the guise of diversity.
The issue had been somewhat sanitized by the time Rep. Dwight Kiefert, a Valley City Republican, and others asked the Legislative Council to “disinvite” the Muslim speaker. By now, the focus had subtly shifted from simply muzzling Muslims to the risk of offending vulnerable Christian legislators forced to listen to his message on Ash Wednesday.
Political-correctness-wise, it was actually getting worse. Proponents of eliminating the Islamic prayer ducked for cover. “I mean, you had representatives on the floor with ash on their foreheads, commemorating the day,” Kiefert told Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki. “And so then you’re going to force them to listen to a prayer they don’t agree with?”
One might reflect on whether this discovery of multiple perspectives was a little late in coming, emerging as it did after years and years and years of Christian prayers with no prior research into what might make each listener feel more comfortable. One might also wonder what this has to do with politicians conducting the public business of North Dakota, the same state where the governor had proclaimed Religious Freedom Day just one month earlier (only 48 hours before Respect Life Day and, incidentally, two weeks ahead of Gum Disease Awareness Month).
Oddly, the Bismarck Ministerial Association, which schedules daily invocations in legislative chambers, had seen no problem in exposing legislators to prayers that might not precisely reflect their church’s Ash Wednesday ritual, a rite not practiced by every Christian denomination. The Church of the Nazarene pastor who made up the calendar that set off the conflagration told The Forum, “I thought nothing of it.”
But the dialogue was racing downhill faster than a runaway bomb train. Angry opinions were being lobbed from every possible quarter. Talk radio and online sites detonated fireworks. The news flew far afield. North Dakota’s unusual approach to religious liberty made headlines everywhere from Fox News and teaparty.com to Alternet, Salon and the Washington Post. A vacationing friend even came across it in a small local daily in Hawaii.
Kinder commentators focused on the damage-control version: The real problem, they emphasized, was that it was Ash Wednesday, not that a Muslim was to pray in the State House (where, presumably, no non-Christians had ever previously trod).The Forum’s entirely unscientific daily poll invited readers to opine on whether they agreed with the “uninviting.” A strong majority, 56 percent, responded with an emphatic “yes.”
Meanwhile, the Senate welcomed the disinvited Muslim speaker to open its own session that day, while House leaders rushed to assure that he’d be reinvited on a less illustrious occasion.
So, here are a couple questions for the rest of us. Just where does the principle of religious tolerance stand in North Dakota? How fuzzy is the line currently cast between religion and government? And can the very American commitment to religious diversity really be considered part of “the North Dakota way”?
Short answer: That depends. Many, many Dakotans do devoutly believe that the separation of church and state is a very good thing for both. Virtually all at least offer lip service to individuals’ inalienable right to worship as they please. But though that particular thread inarguably runs through the fabric of the state’s culture, you may have to look pretty closely to tease it out of the tapestry.
North Dakotans have been eyeing religion suspiciously for a very long time … debating not so much whether it should play a role in public life, mind you, but rather, whose creed deserves to dominate.
In a state where “mixed marriage” not so long ago described a Norwegian Lutheran tying the knot with a Missouri Synod, religious differences have spawned plenty of tussles … from the huge Ku Klux Klan anti-Catholic rallies 100 years ago to the bitter campaign in the 1940s to prevent nuns from wearing religious garb in public schools. Today’s spectacular firefights over abortion and homosexuality are just their latest incarnation.
What’s different this time, North Dakota? We’ve adjusted to constant low-level intramural static between the many flavors of Christianity. Fearing our Muslim neighbors is quite new. It offers some combatants a rare chance to stand united.
Which brings up an issue that’s even larger than when and whether members of any single faith have the right to force everyone else to listen.
What do prayers by visiting clerics have to do, in the first place, with conducting the people’s business?
So how about this: Disinvite all of them. Instead, encourage every single legislator to seek all the divine guidance that he or she can manage. Urge them to pray to their own personal visions of God … in their own personal favorite form of prayer. Endorse their right to ask for all the wisdom they can possibly absorb in exactly the words that suit them best …
… on their own time.