August 2, 2006

Some Thoughts on Church and State

I came across this story in the Gray Lady this morning. It's worth a careful read. In essence, the pastor of a 5,000-congregant "megachurch" in Minneapolis told his flock that being a good Christian did not necessarily mean being politically active for the right wing, and that patriotism and piety are different things. The pastor never backed down from plainly stating that as far as he was concerned, abortion was morally wrong and that homosexuality is not God's vision for mankind. Sexual politics are the hot-button issues for evangelicals, and he was and is still in lock step with those ethical stances.

But he refused to make his church the venue for political propaganda on those or other issues, saying that Christians who focused on issues like whether their neighbors were gay or Janet Jackson's millisecond-long exposure of her breast were suffering from "hypocricy and pettiness," and that they should instead follow the example of Jesus, who never once tried to rally his followers with outrage about the sexual behavior of others, or about diminishing their ability to publicly practice their faith.

He lost about 20% of his congregation.

I thought his most significant insight was “When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses ... When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.” But Christians among the Loyal Readership will probably be more moved (at least to reflection) by this argument: "America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ."

With that in mind, I also see a story brewing on the Religious Right about a high school valedictorian who got quite a bit of friction from her high school because gave the following remarks in her speech:
We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine. He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in Heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don't already know Him personally, I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice He made for you, so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with Him.
She had submitted a very different version of the speech to school administrators, who had previously asked her to edit out most references to religion. So she basically deceived the school about what she was going to say, and admits that she planned to make the evangelizing speech all along. She was not given her diploma for several days after the ceremony and had to agree to send an e-mail to all the parents and students explaining that the remarks were her own and that the school did not endorse what she had said.

I think the school was right to give her flak. First, and most importantly, she lied to her teachers about what she was going to say. For that reason alone, the school administrators were well within their rights to come down on her.

Secondly, she could very well have got the school in trouble. Under the Establishment Clause test in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), any explicitly-religious activity of any state agency can be an unconstitutional establishment of religion unless: 1. it has a "legitimate secular purpose"; 2. it does not have the "primary effect" of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and 3. it does not result in an "excessive entanglement" of the government and religion. Her speech was unquestionably an act of proseltyizing Christianity. Proselytizing, by definition, is something which advances religion. She used the school's venue, the school's microphone, and an audience assembled by the school to evangelize, and by doing so placed the apparent endorsement of the school on her plea for converts to her religion. The school administrators were right to be nervous about this.

I should add that I don't think what she did seems particularly Christian. First of all, lying is an un-Christian sort of thing to do; I seem to recall one of the Ten Commandments having something to say about that. Secondly, I don't know if this counts as public prayer; but I defy any Christian to find an instance in the Gospels in which Jesus voluntarily engaged in prayer in a venue which was clearly public. I have found one instance of Jesus engaging in public prayer -- while being publicly executed on the cross, he prayed, but he didn't have much choice, being unable to remove himself from where he was being tortured to a more private place in which to pray. The point is that Jesus treated communion with God as something best done in private or at most with a small group of intimates. He condemned ostentatious, public displays of piety and religiously-motivated charity as acts of hypocricy carrying no moral virtue, or worse. This speech seems closer to the sort of behavior Jesus condemned rather than the sort of behavior Jesus actually engaged in himself.

I'm glad the girl eventually got her diploma -- she undoubtedly worked hard for the ability to be a valedictorian and deserved some recognition for her achievements. But she also needed to learn another lesson, about respecting people who are different from her and finding the appropriate forum in which to try and "spread the good news." What if she had praised Allah and his prophet Mohammed instead of praising Jesus? Would the leaders of the politicized Christian community be as up in arms about her rights then? I doubt it. Perhaps leftist groups like the ACLU would have hopped to her defense -- but the analysis under Lemon would have been the same.

The Minnestoa pastor made another remark to the New York Times: “America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” he said. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state."

He's about two-thirds right. History proves that Christian theocracies have been every bit as brutal and bloody as Muslim theocracies, and probably even Jewish theocracies. And the U.S. was not founded as a theocracy or with Christianity particularly in mind, and the separation of church and state is indeed a remarkably good idea. But he seems to have forgotten the theocracies created by early colonists, most remarkably the Puritans, who would have been perfectly happy to have set up religious utopias here. I suspect the same impulse that motivated the Puritans and Anglicans and Presbyterians and Catholics and Baptists who set up their colonies in the Americas using the rule of the Bible as law -- and the same impulse that motivated the Taliban and the mullahs in Iran to substitute the Koran for civil law and democracy -- was the same impulse that motivated the eager valedictorian. That is to say: "Because I know and believe that my faith is right, I should do what is within my power to get everyone to subscribe to my faith." Perhaps there are noble motives underlying such a world view. But it never works out well, and history is replete with examples of that.

So it's not quite right to say that religion has never been intertwined with government in our land. But it is right to say that our society has adopted a secular ethic of public life, which has served us very well for 230 years, and we abandon that secularism at our peril.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

About the girl who gave the speech, I would strongly argue with anyone that it does not violate the original intent of the Establishment Clause because no laws were passed by Congress to establish a national religion but that is beside the point.

As a Christian who agrees with her premise, I would disagree with her using that venue to share her beliefs. As Christians, it is our duty to share our faith, but at the same time it is our duty to respect others who may not want to hear it. The people in that crowd were there to see a graduation, not hear one students attempt to hold her own personal Billy Graham Crusade. It sounds like the school handled it well and hopefully this student learned a valuable lesson on the appropriate time to share her faith.