Atheism, Philosophy, Reason, Religion

Persona and Power: Religion in Civil Society


Today two citizens of a town called Greece took their case to the Supreme Court. These two citizens, one a Jew and the other an atheist, have experienced intimidation and hate at the hands of their Christian neighbors for daring to protest the theocratic imposition of an opening, Christian, prayer at every community town meeting. They had brought their business to this civic institution but felt intimidated and scorned by their fellow citizens and the officials elected to serve them when they refused to participate in a prayer that, in violation of the Constitution and the philosophical foundations of this nation, cast the entire proceeding in a Christian light. According to the two citizens, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, and the facts presented to the court very prayer for nearly a decade was given by a member of Christian clergy, with mentions of “our saviour” and “lord” and have included passages from the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer. This incantations often end with a chorus of amens.1

Every citizen of the United States should be appalled by this sort of subtle violence perpetrated against fellow citizens who do not conform to what the (ever shrinking) majority see as immutable reality. The women have said they have received threatening letters, ominous phone calls, have experienced acts of vandalism on their property and homes. They have even been told to stay away from future town meetings. The message sent is one of hate and intimidation and is one step below physical violence. In many ways this sort of theological violence is even more damaging and insidious as it attempts to claims as it s own the very mechanisms that are meant to guarantee freedom from fear, intimidation, and equal access to the services offered by a government that is paid for by all citizens.

This violence attacks at the very consensus at the center of the United States experiment in secular governance. Of course this consensus has always been tendentious at best and often the veneer of secularism disappears the farther one travels from centers of national power and federal government reach. Christians see their influence in the wider society slowly eroding around them, crumbling into the dust that can easily be swept into that oft mentioned bin where such systems of control are destined to rest. Fanatics are most powerful when they are attempting to shore up the crumbling foundations of an established owner. They are able to appeal to the sense of fear and panic that comes when the customary levers of control begin to stick and fail to bring about the same results that become familiar and therefore expected. The opening prayer at the Greece town hall meetings is a relatively recent invention, brought about most likely as a token response from the Christian powers that be that they were indeed still in control. There is no tradition in this act. There is not even the half-hearted attempt to include other religions in the theocratic and political power display after the fashion of the US Congress. “Our Saviour” blessed what can only be seen as “our” meeting in “our” government. And if you do not believe or do not choose to participate in this arbitrary display of power and prejudice then you will be excluded and alienated from the very government you help to fund and create.

The early whispers from the Supreme Court are not promising for those who wish to see the secular consensus preserved. The self and media styled moderates hem and haw about process and difficulty in compromising, the liberals sit alone and impotent, and the conservatives pontificate about the plight of public religion and the kooky sects that hilariously wish to be involved in civil discourse and society. Scalia chuckles about how to accommodate “Devil Worshipers” and “Pagans”, convenient and mocking stand ins and for the real issue at hand, which is the real and violated opinions and rights of a Jew and an atheist.

But why are we, and our dark, id like reflection the media, surprised that this is going on? There has never been a moment in US history where the rights of religious minorities or non-believers have gone uncontested, unviolated. Christianity in the US, first Protestantism and increasingly Catholicism and Fundamentalist iterations of both, is not so much a simple religion as a system of power. It is a convenient mask for the plans and schemes of business interests, government powerbrokers, and entrenched class prerogatives. Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who chose to largely withdraw from the public sphere and its constant set of contradictions and violent betrayals, spoke to a Danish audience on the occasion of her being awarded the Sonning Prize about the concept and origin of the term persona. She relates how it originally referred to both the voice of the actor in a Greek theatrical production sounding through the mask they were assigned as a part of their role on stage, and the mask itself. Arendt explains how the Romans took this concept to mark as true and fully represented citizens those who would wear the persona of one who would adhere to the norms and the beliefs of the society at large. To participate in this civil masquerade was, and remains, to acknowledge its power and its prerogative. To perform the role expected of you is the only route to complete and total acceptance into society and its obligations and opportunities. She goes on to say that her only wish, as a person deserving of rights, liberties, protection, is to move about in society without this required persona in her “naked thisness”, herself as she is to herself and without reference or compliance that declare themselves to be in control of the access to society and its systems.2

We can only hope that the court will see that the best interests of society are served only when the persona demanded by the prevalent religion or political powers that be is set aside in favor of a equal and benevolent silence on all matters theocratic. We can hope, but we must not pray.

1. “Town Divided As Prayer Case Heads to the Supreme Court”

2. Pages 12-14, Prologue, Responsibility and Judgement, Arendt, Hannah, Random House, 2003


2 thoughts on “Persona and Power: Religion in Civil Society

  1. Why is it that atheists depriving Christians of prayer is being tolerant, but Christian praying at community meetings is intolerant.

    Why don’t the Jews and atheists just STFU and let the Christians pray.

    They aren’t hurting anyone and they aren’t forcing anyone to pray who doesn’t want to pray.

    • nme16 says:

      Read the constitution. That is all I can say. And read the Supreme Court cases on this issue for the past 100 years. US is not a Christian nation officially and never has been. So why don’t you just STFU?

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