On Sept. 14, a joint session of the U.S. House and Senate basically bowed down to Baal.
A Hindu priest from Ohio, Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala, gave the invocation that day, the same day that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke to the legislators (WORLD, Sept. 30.) It was the first time that a Hindu priest had served as a guest chaplain on Capitol Hill, and the event showcased everything that is wrong, from an evangelical perspective, with the congressional chaplaincy in particular and civil religion in general.
How should evangelicals, who have fought so hard for a resurgence of civil religion, react to officially sanctioned Hindu prayer in the halls of Congress? Well, one response should be immediate: If any congressman who is a professing Christian took part in the service, the elders of his church should call him to repentance and, if he doesn't repent, excommunicate him.
Sound too harsh? It isn't, if we take the Bible seriously. God's Word teaches that a Christian who bows down to a false god-or takes part in a prayer that denies Christ-is engaged in spiritual adultery, which is every bit as serious as physical adultery. Christ demands our exclusive spiritual allegiance, and the church must not tolerate violations of the first two commandments among its members.
But another response is appropriate: Perhaps Mr. Samuldrala's invocation will cause evangelicals to rethink their devotion to civil religion. As the United States increasingly becomes a gigantic Vanity Fair of false religions, it will become more difficult every year for Christians to see religion in the public square as a good thing.
Actually, America's increasing pluralism is only making clear what has been true for a long time but hidden from view: Christians are a minority in this country. America has a lot of nominal Christians in theologically liberal churches, but as J. Gresham Machen argued nearly 80 years ago, theological liberalism "not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions."
A great number of mainline Protestant churches reject the deity of Christ, the sinfulness of man, the inspiration of the Bible, and numerous other essential doctrines of the faith; they are no more Christian than Mr. Samuldrala's Shiva Vishnu Hindu Temple in Parma, Ohio. Christians shouldn't be surprised to find that we are in the minority. Jesus said that few would enter the narrow gate to salvation and many would enter the wide gate to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
Nor should we be surprised that an unchristian majority would reserve an honored place for untruth in its civil religion. A Hindu invocation is only an extreme version of this habit. Other forms of civil religion routinely are calculated to be inoffensive to those who deny Christ. (Witness the controversy when a legislative chaplain dares to say a Christ-centered prayer.) Truth, it seems, is too polarizing and divisive. Polite universalism is America's civil religion, and it is an absolute enemy of the gospel. It assumes that those who are not in Christ are on good terms with God-a lie, according to the Bible.
Usually that assumption isn't quite as open as it was on September 14, but it will be more often as America becomes more and more diverse. Get ready for Mormons, Muslims, New Age shamans, and, with the rise of Wicca, even Wiccans leading congressmen in prayer on the floor of the House. Don't laugh. Not too long ago, the thought of a Hindu guest chaplain would have seemed laughable.
Evangelicals can respond in various ways. We could recognize that under the new covenant, civil government doesn't have authority over spiritual matters, and that legislatures shouldn't have chaplains. (For centuries some evangelicals, such as Baptists, made this argument.) We also could recognize that civil religion, by affirming unbelievers in their unbelief, hinders the spread of the gospel.
Or evangelicals could continue to fight for symbolic civil religion. But, increasingly, the result of their effort will be a golden calf in America's pluralistic public square. How will they react? If Mr. Samuldrala's invocation is any indication, they will silently bow and not make waves, for the sake of having religion-any religion, even soul-destroying religion-in the public square.