Falwell Fast One?: Lynchburg Preacher's Sectarian House Prayer Doesn't Track Chaplain's Online Version

This weekend, for the first time since I have lived here, I found myself at a Washington-area Hindu temple.

That's because my parents were in town, and when my mom visits, it's on the top of her to-do list. So to satisfy my mother, and my religious quota for a while, I spent 10 to 15 minutes at a local temple.

I may not spend much time praying, but I still consider myself a Hindu and a follower of the faith. I don't need to listen to prayer all the time or have images of my faith displayed all around to know that.

That's why the Religious Right confuses me so much (well, one of the many reasons it does). Religious Right groups and their leaders are obsessed with pushing their faith on everyone by displaying it everywhere and on everything, especially in government venues. They seem to think by doing so they can somehow prove this is a "Christian" nation.

For example, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell opened Wednesday's session of the U.S. House of Representatives with a Christian prayer, which he later said was criticized by many as a violation of church-state separation. Falwell's prayer ended with the words, "In Jesus' name we pray."

Not only did Falwell, pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and son of the late Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell Sr., violate church-state separation, he also seems to have pulled a fast one on the House Office of the Chaplain.

It's my understanding that the chaplain's office must review and approve the prayers by guest chaplains. The office asks these guest chaplains to follow certain guidelines, including making no mention of partisan politics and being sensitive to the fact that members of Congress are from many different faiths.

Did Falwell submit a prayer that met these requirements? On the House chaplain's Web site, Falwell's invocation ends with the non-specific words, "In your precious name we pray."

But that's not what Falwell actually said, of course. He concluded his prayer in the name of Jesus.

Did Falwell intentionally mislead the chaplain's office about what he was going to say?

We may never know for sure, but it sure looks like it. At a minimum, Falwell flouted the guidelines calling for an inclusive invocation and then had the audacity to "educate" those who were upset with his prayer. Writing a commentary for WorldNetDaily, he sought to inform us that we should like his prayer because our nation was built on a "biblical" heritage.

Falwell then went on to take a stab at Americans United for wanting to keep church and state separate.

"This is annoying history to modern civil libertarians who falsely teach that even the most basic religious expressions are violations of law," Falwell said. "I have pointed out that Barry Lynn, who heads Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has stated that the simple phrase 'In God We Trust' should be removed from our currency. It's ridiculous, but many buy into such beliefs."

Here are some reasons why keeping church and state separate, including keeping officially sanctioned sectarian prayer out of Congress, isn't ridiculous, Rev. Falwell.

First of all, the U.S. House is made up of members from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist traditions, as well as some who are unaffiliated or "unspecified." How can Falwell's blatantly sectarian prayer be inclusive and welcoming to all those sitting in that House chamber?

Second, courts have upheld prayer before legislative bodies, but only if it is non-sectarian. Praying in Jesus' name hardly qualifies as that.

Third, an official prayer before congressional sessions is an unnecessary exercise. Those members of Congress who want to pray have every opportunity to do so on their way to or from work at the many religious institutions that surround Capitol Hill. Why do they need anyone to give an invocation when they can pray any way they choose beforehand?

Falwell claims that groups like Americans United aim to take away any and all religious expression when they seek to keep church and state separate. But we know that prayer before Congress has little to do with preserving religious expression for all, or else there would not have been such an uproar when a Hindu priest delivered an invocation before the Senate in July 2007.

Let's just be clear here. Falwell, like his late father, wants to see our American government give preference to his narrow version of the Christian faith. Falwell's prayer had as much to do with that misguided political agenda as it did a genuine expression of faith.

Sorry, Rev. Falwell, you won't find me saying "Amen" to that.