A pop-up on my Facebook page poses the alarming question: “Is God Being Kicked Out of Hawaii?”

The reference is to the Hawaii State Senate, which recently has decided to cease beginning its sessions with a religious invocation. To some, the Senate’s decision seems shocking and harsh. What’s wrong, they wonder, with calling upon some higher power before undertaking to decide the most serious business of our collective lives? Besides, the invocations have not been religiously exclusive. Each senator could to invite the person of his or her choice to give the invocation, so different religions had a shot at representation. Polls tell us that most Americans do believe in God and history tells us that most American legislatures, state and federal, have started their sessions with a prayer of some kind. It could be argued that at worst these invocations were a bit of harmless “ceremonial deism” and at best a moment to summon what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

Where’s the problem?

The problem is that the government-sponsored prayer is not about religion, and still less about God. It’s about politics, and has been so in the United States for a long time. Especially since the rise of the new Christian Right in the late 1970’s, religious language in public life has become allied with a very specific and controversial agenda. In a political setting — whether a legislature, school board or rally – when somebody vehemently calls upon God, we can make pretty good guesses about their politics. They’re likely to oppose same-sex marriage, legal abortion, and AIDS education, support “family values,” Israeli policies toward Palestine, the “war on terror” and a whole slate of ideologically related (if not logically related) views. These guesses aren’t always accurate, but usually they are. And even when liberal clergy do the honors, the political effect is the same. By invoking God – whether a “Republican” God or a “Democratic” God – the effect is to claim a divine imprimatur on one particular side of the debates that follow. In other words, the invocation obstructs the very deliberation it is supposed to commence.

In Hawaii, as everyone here knows, the recent historical baggage of public religion is the Christian Right’s opposition to same-sex civil unions. I’ve been deeply involved in that struggle. I also happen to be a theologian, and my life partner (in Massachusetts, she’s my legal spouse) is a devout Jew. We’re hardly opponents of religion, but we’ve spent hour after painful hour in our own state Legislature listening to “religion” oppose us. In the Senate hearing room, in the Capitol courtyard, and even from the floor, we’ve heard self-identified Christians denounce us as sinners and perverts, accuse us of destroying families, spreading disease, and abusing children.

That’s what I hear, or fear hearing, when the State Senate begins with a prayer. And in fact, that is exactly what I heard the last time I witnessed an invocation. The minister referred repeatedly to biblical references to “traditional marriage” (his term, of course, not the Bible’s). He concluded by urging the senators to “do the right thing” – and do it “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Up in the gallery, I was expected to bow my head and listen reverently as this minister condemned me, my beloved, and our deepest beliefs. And I was expected, at the end of his prayer, to concur in my own condemnation with a whispered “Amen.” You can understand why I did not.

So I get it when activists like Michael Kahle and Kevin Hughes, who disrupted the invocation last spring (and then were beaten by Capitol police) demand that religion get out of public life. Still, I think it’s unfortunate that debates about concrete political issues have morphed into what looks like a battle between religion and its opponents. Bizarrely, religion has come to be defined in precisely the same way at both ends of the political spectrum. The Christian Right insists that their political views are the only truly Christian views (and that Christianity is the only true religion), while progressives wrongly claim that religion is in all times and places a regressive force. Wittingly or not, secularist liberals and religious conservatives conspire to erase the reality of progressive, modernist religion. This is terrible for religion, because it publicly ignores whole denominations like the United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, and the Unitarian Universalist Association (to name only a few). And it’s terrible for political progressives, who can be made to appear inexplicably opposed to religion, God, and all that’s decent and holy.

Worst of all, this caricature of religion has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the public face of religion has gotten more regressive, liberal religious denominations in fact have seen their membership decline. So the claim of conservative evangelicals to be the only real Christians in America begins to seem accurate. Conversely, the wholesale rejection of religion by liberals looks more and more warranted. The result is a cultural stalemate in which it’s hard for government to appear neutral about religion, and still harder to use “religion” – however ecumenically defined – to discern common values in the midst of political conflict. When legislators pray in session, liberals hear a conservative attempt to commandeer the sacred for partisan purposes. And when legislators decide not to pray, that looks to religious conservatives like a counter-religious “secular humanism,” rather than as simple neutrality.

It would be nice if religion could evoke “the better angels” of elected leaders, but for now it’s mostly the bad angels who descend on the scene when the government sponsors prayer. And let’s be honest, it is not about religion. There are plenty of legislators who sustain civility in the midst of disagreement, appeal to common reason rather than to special revelation, and look for compromise rather than demand conversion. They don’t need public exhortation to do these things, which for them are matters of professional integrity. Those who have deep and autonomous spiritual lives don’t need to press their colleagues toward spiritual consensus. And those who routinely engage in religious practice – at home, in their offices, at their church, sangha or synagogue – are not suddenly overwhelmed with the need to pray when they step onto the Senate floor.

Maybe there will come a day when our nation and state mature to the point that public prayers no longer are an oblique and coded form of politics. But we certainly are not there yet. In the meantime, the state senate has offered a moratorium on a practice that in recent years has produced much heat and very little light. It’s a chance for legislators and citizens to face each other on level ground, none of us with God’s hand resting specially on our shoulders, and to justify our political views in the most commonly intelligible terms we can find. In other words, it’s a chance to engage in democratic deliberation, and that’s obviously something with which we’re badly out of practice.

About the author: Kathleen Sands teaches in the American Studies Department at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where she specializes in religion in American public life. She is currently at work on a book about religion and law in the United States.