Saturday, May 4, 2013

"In God We Trust," Prayer in Schools & Manger Scenes: Why We Shouldn't Fight for Them

According to many Christians in the United States today, such as Benjamin Hart, president of the Christian Defense Fund, there is "a relentless assault on America's religious institutions and traditions by our educational system, the courts and throughout our popular culture."  The authors of One Nation Under God: America's Christian Heritage state in their introduction:

"[O]ur schools have been wiped clean of Christian influence, [and] efforts are underway by anti-Christian legal groups to completely "sanitize" our nation of any Christian references by,
  • Removing "In God We Trust" from our currency.
  • Ending opening each session of Congress with prayer.
  • Ending Christmas as a national holiday.
  • And eliminating the rank of military chaplain from our armed services."
It is interesting that according to Charisma News, this perception among Christians is largely limited to evangelicals, with other groups tending to believe that Christianity is simply being asked to share the public square:

"The findings of a poll published Wednesday, reveal a 'double standard' among a significant portion of evangelicals on the question of religious liberty, said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a California think tank that studies American religion and culture.

While these Christians are particularly concerned that religious freedoms are being eroded in this country, 'they also want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture,' said Kinnamon.

'They cannot have it both ways,' he said. 'This does not mean putting Judeo-Christian values aside, but it will require a renegotiation of those values in the public square as America increasingly becomes a multi-faith nation.'"

But there is another issue which neither of these positions really takes into account.  Are such things as public prayers, public display of nativity scenes, the posting of the Ten Commandments in our courthouses, and putting "In God We Trust" on our coins-- all these outward symbols of Christian religious faith-- really things that Christians should spend their time crusading for in the public arena?  Do they even represent the Christianity which is demonstrated and embodied by Jesus and taught by Paul, James and Peter?

Or are they part of something else?  Something called America's Civil Religion?

Here is a definition of the concept of "civil religion" from the above-linked article:

"[T]his concept made its major impact on the social scientific study of religion with the publication of an essay titled "Civil Religion in America," written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. . . Bellah's article claimed that most Americans share common religious characteristics expressed through civil religious beliefs, symbols, and rituals that provide a religious dimension to the entirety of American life. . . . Bellah's definition of American civil religion is that it is "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation," which he sees symbolically expressed in America's founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses.  It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called "God," an idea that the American nation is subject to God's laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion. . . [T]he civil religion thesis claims that civil religion exists symbolically in American culture. . . civil religion is a distinct cultural component within American society that is not captured either by American politics or by denominational religiosity."

The article also points out that "the case [has been] made that civil religion constitutes a set of platitudes that substitute for either serious religious or serious political action."

It seems to me that "In God We Trust" on our coins is just such a platitude.  And most of these other things that we think are so important, are really just outward symbols and practices traditionally associated with white Protestant Christianity, which comprise a civil religion--and civil religion is by nature and definition an outward, social thing.  America's civil religion is about the hold of these traditions on the public expression of faith in our nation.  What it isn't about is heart change within human beings-- or, as far as I can see, about following Jesus or seeking the kingdom of God at all.

This, of course, leads to the questions: What does it mean to follow Jesus? And what is the kingdom of God?  I would agree with those who would protest that the Christian religion is meant to be a thing lived in public, not just about personal piety, and not just about going to heaven when we die.  The kingdom of God is about how we live on earth.  But-- and this is a big "but" -- It's not a human kingdom.  When Jesus preached the kingdom, He was making a radical political statement in His day that God is king and not Caesar.  But He also made it clear (by refusing to let them crown Him king, among other things) that He had not come to simply replace one earthly kingdom with another.

N.T. Wright's book Simply Jesus puts it this way:

"Now there is a completely different way to live, a way of love and reconciliation and healing and hope.  It's a way nobody's ever tried before, a way that is as unthinkable to most human beings and societies as-- well, as resurrection itself.  Precisely.  That's the point.  Welcome to Jesus's new world. . . .

The resurrection of Jesus doesn't mean, 'It's all right.  We're going to heaven now.'  No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth. . .  God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven.  And God's 'being-in-charge' is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord."

The kingdom of God is about God reigning on earth, in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.  But Christ doesn't reign the way human kings reign, or even the way democratically elected political leaders reign-- through making and enforcing laws.  Laws exist to control outward behavior.  But Jesus primarily taught about His kingdom in parables, so as to reach the hearts and not just the behavior of His hearers. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, was like "yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough." (Matt. 13:33).  It is like finding a pearl of great price hidden in a field, and selling everything you have to buy that field (Matt. 13:45).  The kingdom of God is a seemingly insignificant thing, like a mustard seed (Matt. 13:31), that grows up to become the source of strength and life and peace.  The kingdom is something that happens on the inside of human beings when they come into contact with God, which then begins to make a difference in the world outside.

Following Jesus, He told His followers, is about being servants, not rulers (Matt. 23:11).  It's about taking up a cross (Luke 9:23), about laying down your life-- not about acquiring power to make other people do things-- no matter how much we believe the things we would make them do would be good for them.

However, America's civil religion is not about crosses-- except to put on display on the tops of hills and bluffs, so that people end up arguing about whether they should be displayed there.  America's civil religion is about putting "In God We Trust" on our coins-- not about giving away our coins to others.  America's civil religion is about putting nativity scenes in our parks-- not about contemplating the Incarnation and letting it astonish us afresh every Christmas morning.  Ultimately, America's civil religion is an outward thing, not an inward thing.

Gregory A. Boyd, in his book The Myth of a Christian Nation, says:

"We end up wasting precious time and resources defending and tweaking the civil religion-- as though doing so had some kingdom value.  We strive to keep prayer in the schools, fight for the right to have public prayer before football games, lobby to preserve the phrases 'under God' in our Pledge of Allegiance and 'in God we trust' on our coins, battle to hold the traditional civil meaning of marriage, and things of the sort-- as though winning these fights somehow brings America closer to the kingdom of God. . .  Now, you may or may not agree that preserving the civil religion in this way is good for the culture. . . But can we really believe that tweaking civil religion in these ways actually brings people closer to the kingdom of God, that it helps them become more like Jesus?" 

Now, it may be as Boyd says, that preserving the civil religion does have some value to the culture.  But is it really under so much threat as the Christian Defense League and other such organizations believe?  Have our schools indeed been "wiped clean of Christian influence"?  Does America really forbid prayer in its public schools?

In fact, no.  Actually, the United States' federal laws are fairly nuanced and balanced, and are not designed to restrict the freedom of children -- or even teachers-- to pray while at school.  As points out, the only thing United States' law restricts is the power of school boards, administrators and teachers to lead prayers, to write prayers for children to recite, or to compel them towards religious feelings through a moment of silence.  It is not prayer which is restricted; what is restricted is any sort of external compulsion to pray.   But external compulsion has never been what Christianity is about in the first place-- it is only part of the civil religion.  And to the best of my knowledge, civil policies that compel students to pray for a minute or so at the beginning of class, or at the opening of a sporting event or a graduation, may make us feel good about ourselves as a supposedly "Christian nation," but they do nothing to change hearts or advance the kingdom of God.

Greg Boyd again:

"For example, does anyone really think that allowing for a prayer before social functions is going to help students become kingdom people? . . . Might not such prayer-- and the political efforts to defend such prayer-- actually be harmful to the kingdom inasmuch as it reinforces the shallow civil religious mindset that sees prayer primarily as a perfunctory religious activity? Might it not be better to teach our kids that true kingdom prayer has nothing to do with perfunctory social functions, that true kingdom prayer cannot be demanded or retracted by social laws and that their job as kingdom warriors is to 'pray without ceasing' (1 Thess. 5:17) whether the law allows for it to be publicly expressed or not?

In other words, rather than spending time and energy defending and tweaking the civil religion, might it not be in the best interests of the kingdom of of God to distance ourselves from the civil religion?" [Ibid., emphasis in original.]

So if we as Christians want our children to be free to pray Christian prayers in school, is it such a high price to pay to agree that they should pray on their own time, before classes or at lunch or recess, so that kids of other religions aren't forced to pray our prayers-- just as we don't want our kids to be forced to pray Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim prayers?  Is a public prayer by a teacher really so essential to our kids' faith?  Or could it actually be detrimental, as Boyd says?  Isn't private, heartfelt prayer on the playground better than external, get-it-over-with prayer in the classroom?

It seems to me that the Christian-like trappings of America's civil religion are really only symbols of the privileged place that has traditionally been held by white Protestants in our culture.  Changes in the hold that these traditions have on our culture are not signs that America is falling away from God, but only that it is becoming more inclusive of all expressions of religion and non-religion, in an increasingly diverse society.  And if we're going to promote real religious liberty, we're going to continue to attract more and more diverse sorts of people to come to our nation to live, work and worship.  Is religious freedom worth it?  I think it is.

So.  My fellow Christians, how do we best follow Jesus?  Should we defend human traditions as if they were the commands of God (Matt. 15:9)?

Holding onto privilege is sort of the opposite of laying down our lives or taking up our crosses, isn't it?  So why are we so anxious to keep and defend outward symbols and practices that ultimately have no eternal value?

I say let's seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, as Christ taught (Matt. 6:33).  I say it's better to allow diversity free expression within American culture, and to work for God's kingdom than to fight to keep our own.

No matter how "Christian" our civil-religious kingdom looks on the outside. 


Anonymous said...

Good post, Kristen, as always.

I don't like to use the word religion anyway. I have seen atheists use this word in negative sentences about believers, like "religion is a crutch" or similar things.

However, what they don't see is that you can be religious about anything. You can be religious about promiscuity. Or alcoholism. Or drugs. Or your love of money.

I am not religious. I believe in Jesus Christ. He is the answer to religion.

Sonnet said...

Excellent points!

heather said...

This is great. And it gives me some reasonable things to say to defend my opinion that doing "Christian-y" things in public really don't matter. :)

perfectnumber628 said...

Every now and then, someone posts something on facebook about how our country is totally turning away from God, and it will say "kids aren't allowed to pray in school" as one of the signs. And then I have to come and correct them and say THIS IS NOT TRUE. This is just totally not true. No one stops kids from praying if they want to in school. What's not allowed is trying to make OTHER PEOPLE pray.