At the Center for Law and Religion Forum yesterday, my colleague Marc DeGirolami wrote about the establishment-clause implications of a yoga garden at the White House’s Easter Egg Hunt. His post reminded me of something I saw twenty years ago as a lawyer for the federal government. In those days, and I assume today, too, the US Government’s Office of Personnel Management used to publish “employee wellness” newsletters to encourage healthful practices among government workers. Most of the time, the newsletters stressed things like exercise, nutrition, and avoiding drug abuse. On one occasion, though, the newsletter had a section on meditation and mindfulness. It advocated Eastern mind-calming techniques and offered a piece of advice about one’s behavior. I still remember it today: “The Universe doesn’t judge you, but there are consequences.”
Now, meditation can have very helpful effects on the mind. Whenever I can discipline myself to practice it, I find my concentration greatly improved. And I don’t perceive anything un-Christian about meditation; if I did, I’d avoid it, frankly. But I thought then, and think now, that the line about the Universe not judging us was a government religious endorsement. After all, one obvious implication of the statement, which seems vaguely Buddhist, is that the Christian concept of the Last Judgment is wrong: there is no God, only an impersonal Universe, which will not demand a final accounting from us. Surely these are religious concepts. Yet there the statement was, in an official government publication, meant for employees to consider and apply in their daily lives.
I think it’s fair to say most Americans would not think of this sort of statement, or the yoga garden at the White House event, as government religious endorsements. But why not? Meditation is closely associated with Buddhism and yoga with Hinduism. If a government publication endorsed Christian prayer–a highly effective mind-calming technique for many people–lawsuits would surely follow. So why aren’t people suing about government-sponsored meditation and yoga gardens?
I can think of a few possibilities:
- The religious messages are minimal and attenuated. One can encourage meditation without endorsing Buddhism and yoga without endorsing Hinduism. People who object are busybodies and cranks.
- The religious messages are imperceptible to most Americans, who know little about Eastern religions.
- The messages are “spiritual, not religious,” and therefore unobjectionable.
- The messages are included in the interests of multicultural harmony and religious tolerance. Heck, it was an Easter Egg Hunt!
- The messages are religious in a good way, not like those bad, judgmental messages associated with theistic religions like Christianity. So it’s OK for government to endorse them.
Which of these explanations seems most plausible? I leave it to you, gentle reader.