May 6, 2014 4 Comments
About three weeks ago, the Baptists came calling, ringing the doorbell and inviting me and mine to join them at Sunday service. I politely declined. As I started closing the door, one of the men reached out with a pamphlet, asking if I would like some information about Jesus Christ, “your Lord and Savior.” Tempted though I was to point out he was making a pretty bold assumption about the status of my soul, I declined again, telling him that I would just throw the pamphlet away unread.
I’ve made no secret in this blog (or anywhere else) that I’m not a particularly churchly man but I also hope I’ve been pretty clear that, as far as I’m concerned, we are all free-agents in this world. The two Baptists have just as much right to ring my doorbell as the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Islamist, and any other group of folks who feel strongly enough about something they want to traipse around town and meet jerks like me.
Fortunately, I also have every right in the world to turn down both their invitation and their pamphlet without fear of repercussions. They can, of course, curse my soul as they head down the sidewalk, but last time I read my bible those are pretty hollow words coming from mortal men.
The reality is that I’m happy those men have found something that helps sooth their soul on this veil of tears we traverse every day. I tell my students all the time that one of our goals in this world, in fact, should be latching on to something that helps provide solace in times of trouble and humility in times of plenty. Mostly, I tell them, we need to find something that helps us respect our fellow humans. If loving God (and hoping God loves you back) does it for you, more power to you. If hugging a tree lights your fire, far out and rock on.
Like art, I tell them, religion and beliefs need to provide a momentary stay from the confusion of daily life. If they don’t offer us such things, what good, we might ask, are the beliefs? I’ll readily admit that I’m always really bothered by angry religious fanatics. The gods of religions aren’t angry and vengeful: we probably shouldn’t be either.
One of the glories of America, I also remind them, is that we are Constitutionally guaranteed the right to seek out and follow those beliefs. The State cannot “prohibit” that free exercise. Feel free, I tell them (looking at a couple in particular) to pray before any exam you want. Kneel down after the game, praise your god after victory, and ask for solace upon defeat.
But, I remind them, don’t fall into the narcissistic trap and assume my god and your’s are the same.
That same State that lets you practice your religion is also barred from establishing one that we all have to follow. Those dudes were pretty smart that way.
While it is true that Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, it’s also true that Article VI makes a religious test illegal with regard to public office. In other words, the Constitution forbids a religious litmus test for holding public office, rejects the State’s ability to establish a religion, and makes it illegal for the State to prohibit the expression of religion all the while requiring that public officials support the Constitution, the “separation” Jefferson was so passionate about seems pretty clear.
We should tread carefully, then, when our theology turns into politics. (Go ask the Iraqis how that kind of system works out for ya.)
Certainly, our religious history in America is dominated by a Judeo-Christian past, and we should never deny or reject that part of our history. It is equally, true, though that the very nature of democracy dictates that the basis of that religious history has assumed a clear desire to provide checks and balances that respect the separation of earthly and transcendent powers. “Render unto Cesar” and all that jazz, right?
The power of that separation was, for Jefferson and many of our founding fathers, a desire to reject revealed truths in favor of rational thought. At the risk of offending a wide-swath of people (if I have’t already), the Virgin Birth is anything but rational. So is forcing me to believe what you believe.
Most important, though, that separation was designed to stop the religious majority from merging the power of the pulpit with the strength of the government to limit the free expression of ideas. They recognized that we can’t combine the power to condemn a man to hell with the threat of public incarceration and create a government of the people and for the people.
The only true democratic system is one that stops the public, democratically elected government from restricting the free expression of ideas and prohibits that very same government from endorsing particular religious systems.
We are, simply put, so great because Ted Cruz, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Rick Perry can’t tell us what we can and can’t think nor can they create a system where we have to run through a gauntlet of Christian prayer just to enter the town square.
Except maybe they can.
Yesterday the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that Greece, NY can, in fact, offer a de facto endorsement of one religion by offering Christian only prayers before their town meetings. The Supreme Court ruled that prior to a public meeting where citizens appear and petition their local government for progress, redress, or revisions, every person in the room must listen to and be subjected to a state sponsored religious message that focuses on one single belief system.
There goes Jefferson’s wall. And one more civil liberty.
Understand that the issue isn’t offering a prayer in a public forum that is state sponsored. The Court is certainly correct that we have a historical precedence for prayer in public spaces. (A fact, I remind my Christian friends, that shouldn’t make them feel very good. In essence, the Court seems to recognize that prayer has simply become something people are accustomed to and it rises above–or falls below I guess–it’s original meaning. In other words, prayer is okay, they say, because no one is paying attention anyway.)
The real issue is restricting and limiting the prayer to a single, solitary type of prayer and, by implication, endorsing Jesus as our only hope for filling that pot hole over on Magnolia Street. Welcome to our come to Jesus meeting. First they tax my body and now they want to help my soul. All I want to do is complain about my trash pick up times.
Talk about big government.
We are a short step, it seems, from claiming that “the First Amendment only applies to Christians” because “Buddha didn’t create us,” Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court Justice said 3 days ago. “Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures.”
That, my friends, should scare every one of us regardless of what we believe.