New Castle News

March 5, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Do we want politicians to claim wisdom from God?

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Let’s suppose that I prayed long and hard prior to writing this column.

Would that mean that my words were guided by God? And those who disagreed with me were condemned to burn in hell for all eternity?

Of course, I am not arrogant enough to claim divine guidance for my writings. And I know you, the reader, aren’t gullible enough to believe it, even if I said it were so.

The hows, whens, whys and ifs of God’s involvement in our lives is up to God, not us. And when people say their actions are directed by God, I am skeptical, because I’m skeptical by nature. I’m a journalist, after all.

But this skepticism is particularly intense when politicians try to tell us that God is on their side. And it’s why I’m always baffled that so many people want elected officials to openly embrace religion. When I seek moral guidance, politicians aren’t exactly tops on my list.

Such a debate cropped up a couple of weeks ago at a Wilmington school board meeting, when some members questioned the practice of saying prayers at the start of sessions. There were concerns expressed that such organized prayers by a public body violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Now, I advocate the separation of church and state. So I think it’s a mistake to have organized prayer at government-run meetings. That said, individual members of governing bodies are perfectly free to pray on their own if they so desire. It is their right.

As we all know, educator-led prayer is no longer permitted in public schools. For a lot of people, that’s a bad thing. But I suspect their view would be different if any prayers conflicted with their personal religious beliefs.

Yet prayer itself is not banned from schools. Students, like school board members, have the right to pray on their own. I’m sure many do just before taking tests.

The debate at Wilmington sparked a public response, both pro and con. But the people who think the board should pray as a group prior to meetings ought to ask themselves why. What is the purpose of this type of prayer? Divine guidance? A communal experience? A search for wisdom? A continued habit?

And if you believe in organized prayer by government officials, then you must be prepared to acknowledge that the decisions reached are formed with the assistance of God. Doesn’t that put a crimp in your ability to disagree with these officials? You don’t want to go against God.

We all should be suspicious of politicians who attempt to place a veneer of the sacred over their profane acts. History is replete with examples of governments that sought to have themselves identified with dieties in order to deter opposition.

America’s founders were well aware of this fact. They went up against a British king who ruled in large part “by the grace of God.” And in the end, the United States established a government that was not crafted by God, but rather, “We, the people.”

Significantly, the Constitution formed a system of government that had nothing to do with faith. Instead, it provides a system built upon distrust of each other. The founders were worried about concentrating too much power in any single entity. So they created the now-famous system of checks and balances to ensure that power was as diffuse as possible while still allowing government to act when needed.

Is it an ideal system? Of course not. But ours is a far more perfect union than those where leaders claim divine right as their power source.