When Praying Is a Problem

Two news items in recent days caught my attention because they both deal with something that normally doesn’t make headlines:  prayer.  Private prayer, no problem; communal prayer, on the other hand, can be highly controversial, as the case of Pastor Louie Giglio shows.


The Presidential Inaugural Committee, acting on input from President Obama himself, selected Giglio to deliver the benediction at the President’s upcoming inauguration.  Giglio, the pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, had come to the attention of the President because of his work to end human trafficking.  In 1995, the evangelical minister from Atlanta started a movement known as the ‘Passion Movement’ which targeted college-age students.  Not just an evangelism tool, the Passion Movement was intended by Giglio to inspire students to tackle head on one of the world’s greatest social ills:  global slavery and all that entails, from forced labour and child labour to sex trafficking.  Millions of dollars to this end have been raised by both the Passion Movement and Giglio’s own church.   At a recent event called ‘Passion 2013’  held in Atlanta 60,000 college students made a commitment to end global slavery.  When the Presidential Inaugural Committee approached Giglio to mount the “most prominent prayer platform” in the land and invoke God’s blessing on the President’s Second Term, Giglio accepted, honoured to be chosen.

But then gay rights groups brought to light a sermon Giglio had preached on the topic of homosexuality in the mid-1990s, entitled “In Search of a Standard Christian Response to Homosexuality.”  Giglio quickly withdrew his acceptance of the President’s invitation.  Whether he was pressured to, he didn’t say.  I haven’t listened to Giglio’s sermon, but those who have, claim that his response to the question of homosexuality is a biblically-based response, yet delivered in a “pastor-ly,” compassionate manner. The Presidential Inaugural Committee is now looking for someone to deliver the benediction whose “beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.”  In a week’s time, the US President will place his hand on two Bibles stacked together–one owned by Abraham Lincoln and the other owned by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.–and take the oath of office. Giglio has been deemed unacceptable by the Obama administration for preaching the view of homosexuality found in the pages of those very books.  Irony of ironies!!    

The second news item which caught my attention concerns John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban” who, along with forty of his fellow Muslim inmates incarcerated in the high security federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, has been awarded the right to gather daily for unsupervised communal prayers.  This is the John Walker Lindh who entered Afghanistan in 2001 to help the Taliban build a “pure Islamic state” and who trained in an al-Qaeda training camp where he met Bin Laden, or so he later claimed. Captured by US forces, he pled guilty to supplying services and carrying explosives for the Taliban government, and is now serving a 20-year-sentence in Terre Haute.  Citing security reasons, prison officials from 2007 on allowed Muslim prisoners to meet for communal prayers only once a week.  A lawsuit was launched in 2009 by two Muslim inmates to restore daily communal prayer.  When Lindh joined the prayer lawsuit in 2010, the case suddenly became more high profile.  Lindh claimed that he belongs to the Hanbali school of Islam which requires five communal prayers daily.  Lindh and his fellow Muslim prisoners won their lawsuit the other day. Federal judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled in their favour, claiming that the prison warden was violating a 1993 law that bans the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest.  Prison officials are considering an appeal.

Other than the issue of communal prayer, these two news items bear little, if any, relationship to each other.  And yet, viewed together they present–I would say–something of a “snapshot” of religious tolerance in America.  In “religiously tolerant” America, those who hold to a Bible-based view of homosexuality are being driven from the public square.  And that’s troubling.    



Retreat and Resurgence: Religion in 2013

The latest polls confirm what many have already recognized:  Religion is becoming less important to Americans, particularly young Americans. In the last five years, the number of those with no religious affiliation has grown from 15% to 20% of the American public, as reported by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  The figure for young Americans is even higher:  One/third of those under the age of thirty are unaffiliated. A similar trend can be seen in Canada where polls put the number of religiously-unaffiliated Canadians at 25%.  What is clear is that the trend towards secularization, a trend first seen in Europe, is accelerating at a rapid pace on this side of the Atlantic. 

Interesting statistics, you might say, but so what?  This is what:  With the growing secularization of society, fewer and fewer Americans and Canadians are taking religion–any religion–seriously, and therein lies the problem:  While religion may be in retreat in the West, just the opposite is occurring in the world’s “hot spot,” the Middle East where, thanks to the so-called “Arab Spring,” there has been a resurgence of religion of the Islamist kind.

This resurgence is due–in some measure, undoubtedly–to President Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo Speech “A New Beginning.”  The Obama administration insisted that at least ten members of the Muslim Brotherhood–an organization banned by Mubarak and his predecessors–be allowed to attend the President’s speech.  They were invited, and given front row seats.  One wonders whether the Obama administration ever questioned why the Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed all those years. The Muslim Brotherhood started out as a religious movement created by a Sunni Muslim, Hassan al-Banna, in 1928 as a kind of boys’ club to promote moral reform in the Arab world. What began as a boys’ club evolved into a political organization, now found worldwide.  Adopting as its slogan, “Islam is the solution,” the Muslim Brotherhood began calling on Muslims everywhere to return to their purest religious roots, to reestablish the Caliphate, and to resume holy war or jihad against the non-Muslim world.  A long-standing member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, has just been elected president of Egypt.     

In the nearby Gaza Strip, HAMAS, an outgrowth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, wields power after winning a democratically-held election in 2006.  HAMAS is the Arabic acronym for ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’.  The organization was founded in 1987 by the blind Sunni Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.  In its 1988 founding charter, HAMAS sets out its aims in unambiguous language:  “Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Qur’an its Constitution, Jihad its path, and death in the cause of Allah its most sublime belief.”  Recently, the Obama administration used HAMAS to broker a truce between Gaza’s rocket-firing ‘militants’ and Israel, thus giving HAMAS new respectability and clout in the region.  In order to compete with HAMAS’s growing influence, particularly in the Westbank, the organization Fatah, under the leadership of Mahmud Abbas, is taking on a new religiosity.  Fatah was created by Yasser Arafat as a political and paramilitary organization.  Over time it came to be the largest group within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).  The gap between Fatah and HAMAS in terms of the role of Islam is narrowing considerably, observers have noted recently. 

Then there’s the political party Hezbollah, the ‘Party of Allah’, in neighbouring Lebanon.  A Shi’a creation, founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards originally as a militia, Hezbollah takes its ideological inspiration from the teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.  The party’s current leader, Hasan Nasrallah, is a former seminarian, having studied at the Shi’a Seminary in Baalbek, Lebanon and later teaching at a religious school.  In its 2009 Manifesto, Hezbollah calls for all Arabs and Muslims “to do what their religious and humane responsibility calls them to do towards their holy land of Palestine.” 

There are more political-religious organizations that one could name, with many of the same goals as the Muslim Brotherhood, HAMAS, and Hezbollah–goals in some cases which pose a direct threat to us in the West.  With the growing secularization that we in the US and Canada are witnessing, I fear that there will be even fewer people inclined to take a serious look at the religious underpinnings of the groups and leaders assuming unprecedented power in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Take the case of James Clapper, director of US National Intelligence who, at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in February 2011, described the Muslim Brotherhood as a “largely secular” organization.  No one with an understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood would ever make such a statement.  It makes me wonder how many other “Clappers” are out there!  While we in North America may be increasingly indifferent about religion, people in other parts of the world are not; in fact, when it comes to religion, growing numbers are “dead serious,” a trend sure to continue in 2013.