Recently there has been a spate of news reports concerning the relationship of religion in the public square. New Times, in its Nov. 7 issue, published a report that Pismo Beach was being sued for violating the California Constitution’s “no preference and establishment” clause regarding religion (“Religious watchdog sues Pismo Beach”). Recently on Fox News, a regular commentator charged that Christians in the military were under assault from secular humanists because they were attempting to prevent religious rites being mixed into military ceremonies. This is a charge repeatedly asserted by persons like Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and promoted by Fox News and multiple right-wing religio-political organizations. The Greece Town Board just presented oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that their practice of offering prayers was constitutional. The case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12-696, arose from the Town Board’s practice of starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month.”
The common feature of all these controversies is this: The more a minority of non-Christians legally and politically objects to the practice of mixing religion and politics which discriminates against atheists, Jews, and other religious minorities, the more the historically dominant majority, (usually evangelical) Christians, claims that preventing them from mixing religion and politics is an attack on their freedom of religion. This is typically directly linked with the historical claim that 1) America is a Christian nation and that 2) the principle of the “wall of separation” between church and state is false.
These claims are mistaken historically, but more importantly, these Christians are ignoring their own founder’s teachings about the role of public prayer, religious practice, and genuine piety in general. First, Matthew 6:5-6 states: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Here Christ severely criticizes the ostentatious display of religiosity as hypocritical.
The non right-wing religious citizen perceives the right-wing religious believers’ attempts to insert their religious beliefs into the public square as analogous to an alpha male marking his territory to let all the others know that he is the dominant animal. And this is exactly what right-wing believers are so intent on doing when they attempt to stir outrage among their “base” about how the evil ACLU is persecuting Christians by maintaining a “wall of separation.” The Pismo Beach case illustrates this. The Christian chaplain prayed: Citizens should “elect leaders who will stand up for the clear standards that are expressed in the Bible, the Holy Writings of God” and religiously condemned the “many of our citizens and leaders [who] have turned from the path of righteousness in our lives and lifestyles.”
Believers like this not only know that they have God on their side, they are rather disgusted with non-believers who cannot “see the truth” and are leading the country down the path to perdition. This is precisely the arrogant attitude that resulted in the religious wars our Founding Fathers tried to prevent by constitutionally outlawing mixing religion and governance. At one time this type of arrogance resulted in the fact that Jews were not permitted to testify in many European countries because Christians arrogantly assumed that their lack of belief in Christ made them moral reprobates. It is not a coincidence that Jews, like the “atheist Jew,” Dr. Sari Dworkin, of the Pismo Beach case, often initiate such legal challenges.
Second, it is simply false historically and constitutionally that the Founding Fathers intended us to be a Christian government. (I will not substantiate this here, however). But even more critically, again the right-wing Christians claiming to be persecuted are simply wrong about Christ’s commands. It’s true that most of the Europeans who eliminated our original inhabitants happened to be Christians, mainly Protestant; it’s true that despite our Constitution, customs in many locations did mix prayer and politics. However, America was never a “Christian nation.” John 18:36 states that Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” In other words, Christ never instructed his followers that they should seek to construct a “Christian nation” here on this Earth. In fact, this is a spiritual impossibility. Earthly governments, by definition, coerce (the chief is served by his subalterns); in Jesus’ spiritual kingdom, “He who is greatest is the servant of all.” Participation in this kingdom is by free-will, service is never coerced. When the Emperor Constantine co-opted the Christian church by making Christianity the state religion, Jesus’ principle of “My kingdom is not of this world” was fundamentally corrupted. This led directly to the concept of the “divine right of kings,” to wars of religion, and to genocide being practiced by Conquistadors who converted the heathen with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.
Third, complaining about not being able to impose Christian religiosity in the public square in the form of an ostensible “Christian nation” ignores Galatians 5:22-23, which says: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Christians who claim to be legally prevented from exercising their religion publicly forget that their best methods for attracting non-Christians to the faith is by being a loving and lovable Christian; that is exercising the above fruits of the Spirit. Not by attempting to cram their religiosity down others’ throats. Bullying tactics and stirring up resentment against religious minorities, even atheists, for supposedly preventing them from parading their religiosity in the public square is the opposite of Christ’s example of humility, humbling himself even to a death on the cross. Christians must decide whether it’s more important to them to try to force Christian prayers, Christian crosses, Christmas crèches, etc. on a non-Christian minority or they can practice “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” and let the Spirit do the converting.
Don Casebolt lives in Santa Maria. Send comments to the executive editor at [email protected].
-- Don Casebolt - Santa Maria
-- Don Casebolt - Santa Maria