Bipartisan Interfaith Prayer Service: Praying with Pelosi

This morning, I joined Shelley Moskowitz of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) in attending the 111th Congress Bipartisan Interfaith Prayer Service at the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church. For many members of Congress, the prayer service is time of reflection and centering before taking the oath of office.

Prior to the service Shelley introduced me to Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, whom she has known for twenty years when they were both working towards peace and justice in Central America. It was a great honor.

The service appropriately began with the hymn My Country ‘Tis of Thee, followed by Republican and Democratic Members of Congress reading from the Qur’an, Hebrew Bible, and New Testament. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) offered the first reflection on the story of the Good Samaritan. He called upon his colleagues to put aside their differences, get off their high horses, as did the Samaritan, and remember their obligations to their constituents, especially the least among them.

Rep. John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, offered a Litany of Intercessions, which included a call for peace on earth and an end to violence, words that had deep meaning for me as I thought of the violence in Israel and Gaza. The Lord’s Prayer was then recited in Spanish by Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX).

Rep. Nancy Pelosi offered the final reflection on the story of the loaves and the fishes. She affirmed the miraculous nature of Jesus the Shepherd feeding 5,000 people, not counting women and children, with five loaves and two fish. But she added a belief that the miracle alone did not feed all gathered; the miracle itself was multiplied as it inspired others within the crowd to produce and share what little they had as well. Her interpretation was poignant in this time of economic turmoil.

It was a poignant service, moving many to the verge of tears. In the middle of the service, a soprano, Andrea Trusty, sang a soulful version of Let There Be Peace on Earth. When she finished, Shelley leaned toward me and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if they opened each day with that song?”

With the Representatives gathered facing an economic crisis, war in the Middle East, and global climate change, I got the sense that they wouldn’t mind that at all. The 111th Congress has huge challenges to face; inspiration and prayer is needed. Let us remember that in the months ahead.

Update on the Evolution Debate in Florida

About two months ago, I blogged in recognition of Darwin Day, at which time I pointed to a disturbing trend in Florida. Twelve county school districts had passed resolutions banning the teaching of evolutionary theory.

The teaching of evolution is no more a matter of ideology than the teaching of the Big Bang theory or thermodynamics. These are scientific theories, and whether or not one agrees with them, valid scientific theories are what is taught in a science class room. I myself have serious misgivings about the theory of natural selection, but I would still put it forth if I were teach high school science. To censor the teaching of evolution in a science curriculum is like censoring the teaching of Plato in a Greek philosophy curriculum. Teaching Plato has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with him.

At that time the Florida State Board of Education was scheduled to vote on the new science standards. The good news is that the board did vote to adopt standards of science education that require the teaching of evolutionary theory in Florida schools.

However, in response to this, anti-evolutionists then took on the strategy of requiring that Intelligent Design be taught as an alternative theory. Eight Florida school boards have since passed resolutions insisting that “alternative theories of organismal origin” be presented alongside evolution. On February 29th, Florida State Senator Ronda Storms introduced a bill in the legislature to the same effect.

The claim is that it’s not about religion (as that would obviously violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment) but about allowing teachers to teach alternative theories. The problem with this, as I said in my previous post, is that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It is by its very nature unscientific. This has nothing to do with whether it is “true” or not. I myself believe in a God who interacts in the world. But theories involving God as a cause simply cannot be empirically tested, and one of the criteria for a valid scientific theory is that it makes testable predictions.

When the bill was first introduced, the Florida Citizens for Science blog predicted it would go nowhere. Likely, that was the author’s hope. It so far has passed through two committees. And once again, these events have gone largely unreported in mainstream media, being carried mainly through blogs.

Happy Darwin Day

Most people know today as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. What you might not know is that the man who saved the Union shares his birthday (to the year) with the man who proposed natural selection as the driving force for evolution. February 12th is “Darwin Day,” promoted by some as an “international celebration of science and humanity,” mainly in reaction against those that favor creationism/intelligent design.

As a former biologist, there is no doubt in my mind that the diversity of life on earth today came about by evolution. The common genetic origins that we share with all living organisms is seen not just in evolutionary theory but also genetics, developmental biology, molecular and cellular biology… In short, all of biology points to this unifying explanation. Even so, I would not normally be holding up Charles Darwin’s birthday as something particularly important to note. So why am I doing it now?

Yesterday, February 11th, the Florida Department of Education held its final public hearing on new state-wide science standards that would supercede any policies at the local levels. The proposed standards, which have been favorably received by teachers and scientists, would make the teaching of evolution a required part of Florida’s science education for the first time. This little fact drew people from all over the state to testify both in favor and against the proposed state standards. The controversy was so great that it eclipsed discussion on any other aspect of the proposed standards.

While I appreciate their sincerity, the arguments presented against the teaching of evolution show a fundamental lack of understanding of science and highlight the desperate need for improved science education. People argued that the word “theory” means it’s unproven, ignoring the fact that science doesn’t use the term that way. Few people go around disputing the theory of gravity, for example.

Nor do proponents of teaching intelligent design in science classrooms understand that while “God did it” is a valid theory, it is not a valid scientific theory. The assumption seems to be that “science teaches the truth and since I believe that creationism is true, science should teach it.” In reality, science describes the natural world and thus has no room for supernatural explanations. Science is not saying that there is no God; it makes no statement about God whatsoever.

One seemingly open-minded suggestion was that kids should be exposed to “all theories of creation,” and then free to decide which one they like best. That is great on a personal level. Every one of us is free to decide what we will and will not believe. However, we are not free to decide what is science and what is not science. Science is determined by an objective set of standards, not by subjective feeling nor popular vote.

Most shocking of all in this debate was the revelation that twelve county school districts in Florida have passed resolutions against the teaching of evolution in schools. Yes, twelve. First, I had no idea, after the Scopes (Monkey) Trial, that it was still possible to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. (What exactly does this mean? – will teachers be arrested or fired for teaching science?) Second, I would have thought that something like this would have received more attention than it has. A school board here and there is a blip; twelve school boards in one state is a movement. Yet so far, I’ve only been able to find scant mention of it in local Florida newspapers.

The Florida State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the new science standards on Feb 19th. On this Darwin Day, let us pray that it votes to uphold education for future generations.

Super Tuesdays and Religious Tests

As I read Super Tuesday coverage this morning, I was struck by a short piece in The Washington Post (“Dirty Tricks, Version 2.0: E-Mail Sent to Friends“) that examines the relatively new practice of sending misleading, smear-based emails shortly before a vote. Sadly—but not surprisingly—many of these attacks have strongly religious themes. I decided to use this as an opportunity for Constitutional reflection.

Article VI of our US Constitution is an interesting one. The first two (of three total) clauses establish the authority of the new federal government and Constitution as “the supreme Law of the Land.” The third clause, though it seems to address a different issue entirely, contains three very important words:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

No religious test. According to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, although the “no religious test” clause was “a dramatic departure from prevailing state governmental restrictions,” [it] was adopted with relatively little debate” (link to blog) at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. I’ve read through various legal and historical analysis of the clause, and one thing stands out: while it proscribes formal religious tests, as might be applied by a government body such as a legislature or court, there’s no legal or practical way to make it binding on individual voters. And so I ask: even without legal authority, should not applying a religious test be a widely-accepted social norm among voters? If so, what are we doing to make it so?

I’d like to suggest that we start with personal reflection. Consider: If I were running for office, how would I explain how my religious values relate to my political and policy views? How might a religious fundamentalist answer this question differently, and what’s the significance of those differences to me? Does it matter, for example, if a candidate cites a religious text as a source? Why or why not?

I will wrestle with these questions myself in the coming weeks. As we develop answers, I think we’ll have a better sense of both what it’s like to be a candidate and how we can talk to family, friends, and colleagues about the role of religion—and religious tests—in elections.

In faith,

Rob Keithan

PS: In February the Unitarian Universalist Association will release updated election-year resources, including information on relevant IRS guidelines and how to mobilize your congregation to register, educate, and get out the vote.