Some lawmakers in North Carolina want to establish Christianity as the official religion of the state. They say separation of church and state applies only to the federal government.

The bill introduced on April 1 (no, it’s not a joke) reads:

“SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

“SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

The impetus for the measure was a suit in Rowan County filed on behalf of three citizens who objected to the local Board of Commissioners opening meetings exclusively with Christian prayer, thus giving preference to one religion.

Of course, the legislators really care nothing about religion. This is a power play, plain and simple. As a person of faith and a leader of a Christian church, I object to and am disgusted by this blatant disregard, in the name of Christianity and Christ, for neighbors of other faiths or no faith. Jesus said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and echoing Leviticus, called on his followers to love our neighbors as ourselves. How does running roughshod over the feelings and viewpoints of others honor either principle? Clearly it doesn’t. Jesus must be weeping over what power-hungry and insensitive politicians are doing supposedly in his name.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing has been around since the Pilgrims landed. The Puritans, contrary to what we were taught, did not come to these shores seeking freedom in general. They sought freedom of religion only for themselves. People like Roger Williams were exiled. Native American spirituality was looked on as heathen and devilish. As Richard T. Hughes notes: “The Puritans sought freedom for themselves but for no one else” (Myths America Lives By: 28).

Whether in the 17th century or the 21st, Christian faith is not about imposing a viewpoint on our neighbors by laws or violence. It’s about seeking the common good, together with all people of good will; being open to the insights of others that may and will enrich our perceptions of what God is doing in the world; and most of all, displaying humble love that regards the other as more important than ourselves (1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2:3).

Not even the bill’s sponsors expect it to go anywhere. God grant that it be so. May he defeat all such wrong-headed and idolatrous attempts to force others to worship and live in a way a few declare to be right. 

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Sources:

“States’ Rights And Religion: North Carolina Legislators Say U.S. Constitution Doesn’t Apply To Them” https://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/states-rights-and-religion-north-carolina-legislators-say-us-constitution

“North Carolina May Declare Official State Religion Under New Bill” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/03/north-carolina-religion-bill_n_3003401.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=040313&utm_medium=email&utm_content=NewsEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

For an excellent discussion of matters of the common good and politics, see Arianna Huffington at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/jim-wallis-on-gods-side_b_3001635.html and Jim Wallis at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/on-gods-side-for-the-comm_b_2973104.html.

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Note: This post contains positive statements about President Barack Obama. These are my personal, not pastoral, views and should not be construed to be the official position of First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS.

The Religious Right has so gained control of the perception of what’s “Christian” in this nation that the sort of perspective on faith that once was widely shared and understood now is declared to be not Christian at all. So Barack Obama is criticized for not being a Christian and is even labeled a Muslim. This despite his referring to his faith more times than most presidents ever have. “‘But for many it’s the wrong kind of faith,’” says Jim Wallis of Soujourners, an evangelical social justice organization.

The Rev. Gary Cass, a conservative Christian, claims that “progressive Christian” is a contradiction. For him, Obama and others who support liberal causes and do so because they read the Bible differently are liars. They’ve co-opted Christianity to support their own agenda (John Blake, “The Gospel According to Obama, October 21, 2012; http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/21/to-some-obama-is-the-wrong-kind-of-christian/?hpt=hp_c1).

For these kinds of conservatives, there is obviously only one kind of Christian that can be considered the “right” kind. You have to use the “proper” language (“I’m born again, praise the Lord”), be on the “correct” side of issues (gay marriage, abortion, the structure of the family, health care, taxing the rich, the Middle East, global warming, science), believe in a literal six-day creation, go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church, and vote Republican. As scholar Diana Butler Bass says in the cited blog, “‘The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.’” Progressive (AKA “mainline”) Christianity has lost its place in the public square and has to fight these days to be understood. Its nuanced, intellectual, and not-easily-summarized-in-a-sound-bite faith is hard to articulate when everyone seems to want only short answers that confirm what they already believe, not challenge and invitation to thoughtful consideration.

So, is there a “right” kind of Christian? I think so, but it’s not what the Religious Right and people like Cass say it is. For me, the right kind of Christian is someone who pays more attention to what Jesus did as reported in the gospels than to made-up doctrines about him. Such a believer models his or her life after Jesus and so is open to those who are marginalized, voiceless, scorned, and feared. He or she is not afraid to criticize and call to account his or her own religious system and question its departure from its core values in favor of distorted doctrines and exclusive traditions. This sort of Christian can admit and celebrate that those outside his or her faith tradition, including other Christians or those who follow a different path, can be and are pleasing to God, as Jesus did with the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman in Matthew. This kind of person’s life is about hospitality and justice and compassion, not intolerance, hatred, and judgmental condemnation.

It is the total witness of someone’s life in public and private, not a position on this issue or that or a certain reading of the Bible that shows whether one is a Christian or not. Jesus said it. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Jared Loughner squeezed the trigger of the weapon that killed and injured in Tuscon last Saturday, and he is responsible for his actions. But it is also true that the tragic events in the desert both could/should have been expected and could have been prevented if our institutions and those representing them had worked better. Others have written and spoken about his school, the police, his family, the media, and our general national atmosphere, and I have nothing to add to what they have said. But this whole horrible mess has prompted me to think more broadly this week about the failure of our institutions in general and wonder what can be done to improve them.

Consider:

  • “Fifteen-year-old students in the United States ranked 25th of 34 countries on an international math test and scored in the middle of the pack in science and reading, raising concerns that the United States isn’t prepared to succeed in the global economy” (http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/us-teens-math-test/2010/12/07/id/379224)
  • “Everyone knows that the United States needs to fix immigration. But nobody knows how to do it” (LaVonne Neff, “On the Move, The Christian Century, January 11, 2011: 36).
  • Nurses, soldiers, pharmacists, elementary school teachers, doctors, and police officers were all considered more ethical and honest than members of the clergy, according to a recent Gallup survey (The Christian Century, December 28, 2010: 17).
  • According to the USDA, one in seven US households could not buy adequate food in 2009 (a historic high), and hunger was more prevalent in large cities than in rural areas and suburbs and was substantially higher among Hispanic and black families (The Christian Century, December 14, 2010: 17).

Surely such sad statistics indicate that our schools, churches, and our government are in deep trouble, which really is no news.

So what can we do?

We can throw up our hands and give up. We can predict the end of the world or cocoon in our homes. We can criticize all those other people we consider the cause of the problems, find some scapegoat, while never looking in the mirror and wondering where we went wrong.

Or we can commit to hope. At the very least, we can realize that our current crisis is what Strauss and Howe once called “the Fourth Turning,” a predictable turn of events following a cultural unraveling, ending with a new civic order (an upbeat time when institutions become strong again), when the cycle starts all over. (See William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy and http://blog.lifecourse.com/ along with http://www.fourthturning.com/).

We can listen to our leaders and do what they call on us to do. President Obama has called on us to “do better” and to live up to Christina Green’s and all our children’s expectations. As he said in his speech applauded by left and right: “As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together”  (http://westorlandonews.com/2011/01/13/obama-we-can-do-better/).

His comments apply not only to the tragedy in Tucson and the current national climate. Every institution has people in it who want somebody else to take the blame, who are unimaginative and childish, whose ears are closed to any voice but their own. If we are going to make our institutions better, then we need cooperation, fresh approaches, and deep care for each other.

Finally, Christians particularly can remember and heed the call of our Lord. Jim Wallis, the well-known progressive evangelical, has written: “A central calling for Christians is to be peacemakers. Peace, we understand, is not simply the absence of current conflict, but the presence of a just community. In the midst of tragedy and violence, I believe this means every Christian must ask themselves: ‘How am I responsible?’ What more can we do to bring peace to this world as the Prince of Peace has called us to do? What are the situations and environments that allow this kind of hate and violence to grow? How can I not only stop conflict, but also be a part of bringing about a just community that displays the positive presence of peace?

“As many have already said, we must honor this tragic event and Gabby’s national service by reflecting deeply on how we speak to and about one another, and how we create environments that help peace grow, or allow violence and hatred to enter” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/an-attack-on-the-soul-of_b_807020.html).

In other words, you must be and do better. And so must I. May God help us.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.