When I heard that there had been a Native American prayer at the memorial ceremony in Tucson, I was not surprised.

When I lived on Indian Reservations, we commonly had such prayers at most ceremonies or meeting. But for memorial services, we often also had Christian clergy (usually either Anglican or Catholic) give a prayer. Tribes recognize what Americans used to: that there is one God, and often we approach Him in different ways, but we need to respect that God is being honored in these prayers.

Yet having the only prayer delivered by a Native American, not a local Medicine man, but a Catholic physician from the local university is a bit strange.

One also wonders why the White House didn’t ask a local medicine man to give the blessing. The local tribes in the Tucson area include theTohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui,

The doctor, however, is part Yaqui,  so I guess it’s okay.

Most Yaqui mix their own customs with Catholicism.

This tends to drive the theologically strict up the wall, but actually, mixing what is good in local customs and beliefs is what Paul did.

I laugh here in the Philippines when stricter Protestant fundamentalists criticize Catholic customs here as “pagan”, but they don’t realize their interpretation of Christianity is based on American culture: full of intellectual nit picking (seeing each verse as literal) and assuming both literacy and the availability of cheap books.

The sociology of cultures stress different things, and when we approach God, we not only do so according to our cultural upbringing, but we do so according to our own psychological makeup (see William James’ book on this).

So Catholics don’t see traditional religions as “evil” but as good, and present Christ as helping us to see more clearly the deity that their ancestors sought in customs and ceremonies. In other words, we take what is good and “baptize”it.

For example, here in the Philippines, Mass or the Rosary are often part of the fiesta parades, and every Catholic home has a small “shrine” of lots of statues decorated with flowers. Usually they include Mary (Our Lady of Lourdes or one of the local Madonnas: here we have a lot of “Divina Pastora”, Mary with a lamb and a shepherd’s hat). They usually also include the Santa Nino (the happy chubby Christ child).

Filipinos stress the extended family, so Christ is our “kuya”, God is our Father, and of course never never insult Mama Mary, who can boss both of them around. Similarly, there is an identification with the Passion of Christ, because suffering here is alas common, and it helps to know that our Kuya understands our sufferings. That explains why 1.7 million folks attended the Black Nazarene fiesta last week.

Yet Americans don’t always recognize that they too have a culture.

In the US, Irish Catholic ethnics usually had crucifixes on the wall (does this hark back to the sufferings of the potato famine and the “coffin ships”?), but I’ve never seen that here in the Philippines. Not a lot of sad Madonnas or suffering Christs either (so beloved in Italian communities) and no Guadalupe images, where the Virgin appears as pregnant, in Aztec garb (so beloved of Mexicans).

American Catholicism once had ethnic parishes so people felt comfortable worshipping in their own language, music, and customs, but now, usually the parish is mixed, and full of assimilated ethnic Catholics. Of course, now instead of Hungarian or Polish parishes, we have a common parish that may offer one mass each week in Spanish if there are a lot of Hispanics in the area (and many non Hispanics attend, because the music is a lot better). So the music in an inner city African American parish may differ from that in the suburbs, and Native American parishes may include chants in their own tongue, or Pendleton blankets warming the Virgin at the Nativity scene.

What modern American Catholics call the “Vatican II Mass”, so common in suburban parishes, is actually inculcating the American-Protestantism culture’s style of worship, while folks like Father Z, who want the Latin mass reinstated, again is based on wishing to reinstate the beauty of the Baroque culture more than theology.

What few Americans realize is that what their Protestant churches promote is also base on culture: The literalism of some Fundamentalists who insist on strict truth, honesty, strict ethics, and hard work has a lot in common with the culture behind modern science, that also insists on intellectual honesty over niceness.

And the “God loves you no matter what” culture of the more charitable mainline churches is, of course, based more on modern Psychology that permeates American culture.

Some Protestant circles have both:the reaction against both of these trends is in the Pentecostal/charismatic movement: that replaces the lost emotion to a dry, intellectual Christian world, but keeps the emphasis on godly living. If one believe in God “tweaking history, one can almost imaging Her saying: Those Baptist and Episcopalians are both starting to over-do it. Let’s liven them up and remind them what I meant when I said “God is love”. So the deity found some believers in the remote Southern US and zapped them, and fifty years later, the fastest growing Christian churches are those that stress Biblical living with a happy pentecostal approach to worship.

This is far from the Native American prayer, of course.

But my point is that humans are limited by psychology, culture, and experience.

American culture accepts a “civil religion” that celebrates God, but also insists that the civil religion not be exclusive but respect the fact that we might not agree with the details. In a country where 90 plus percent of folks are believers in something, and even 15 percent of atheists pray every day, recognizing the deep set religious impulse behind civil expressions that include religion is important to understanding mainstream American culture.

Good politicians, such as Bill Clinton, know these things almost by instinct, and can use their ability to be comfortable in the various cultures to get votes and to successfully run a country.

That the White House did not include prayers by clergy of several faiths to comfort the families says more about their cluelessness about American culture than it does about the Native American prayer that was actually given.

If I were being cynical, I’d  wonder if the White House was pandering to the agnostics in their party, who see Native American prayers as quaint (i.e. not to be taken seriously) but might actually be offended if a rabbi said the Kaddish…


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She has worked with many different cultures in her career as a physician.

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