As it slowly dies, the Presbyterian Church (USA), like other oldline denominations, endlessly tinkers with the adminstrative apparatus of religion, rather like a terminally ill patient wanting to rearrange the furniture in the room. Pointless and useless to stave off the inevitable. We Presbyterians seem to have an astounding capacity for inflicting upon ourselves bureaucratic nonsense, then congratulating ourselves on how well we did with the process. We tinker with language, spend precious time and energy on making sure the details are right, and bog down in a mire of procedures, even when we have a supposedly more flexible and mission-focused Form of Government in our Book of Order. Some of our “teaching elders” (ministers) are not satisfied unless and until they hear exact textbook theological language from new folk coming into the district, who must be examined for admission. I often come away from meetings of the area council (presbytery) distraught and despondent because of what we have become.

But then God gives me a gift to remind me that all that stuff is not the Church, but rather the sometimes idolatrous trappings of human-devised religion. His largess came to me Wednesday night as a one year-old girl, Lillie, took her first steps at a church dinner, right after we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. Imagine my joy and that of everyone! This is what it’s all about, I said to myself: a child toddling about in the midst of a community of folk who love her, her brothers, her parents, and her grandparents. The Church is not procedures and rules, but relationships. It’s the sheer delight of witnessing God’s wonders, like a little girl who one moment was not walking, then the next was taking steps on her own. It’s supporting each other as Lillie did herself when she grabbed a kiddie chair and used it as a walker to get from one place to another. It’s welcome and encouragement and celebration like numerous church members gave to Lillie when she tried to walk, then sat down on her bottom, but then took a few more steps, to be congratulated and welcomed literally with open arms. It’s remembering Jesus’ words: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

The first step is the hardest.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“We do not even  wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others” (Presbyterian Church [USA] Book of Order F-3.0101b, stating an historic principle guiding Presbyterians).

Probably the sole reason I remain a Presbyterian (the mainline/oldline kind) is our commitment to freedom. Freedom of conscience, with God as its only Judge and Lord. Freedom from tyranny, which led Presbyterians to participate actively in the American Revolution. Freedom in liturgy, which means that while we have an official guide, the Directory for Worship, that very standard gives me a great deal of latitude.

At no time, contrary to the claims of some politicians these days, have I felt such religious liberty threatened. Are there IRS regulations forbidding me, as part of a not-for-profit, from endorsing candidates from the pulpit or on church letterhead? Yes, and I respect and obey those rules as good and proper. Must my congregation, in personnel matters, follow the laws concerning fair employment (Book of Order G-3.0106) or must I, as well as my ruling elders, report abuse, neglect and/or molestation (Book of Order G-4.0302)? Again, yes, and we do this not simply because the law requires it, but as a theological commitment. I don’t feel that following the law oppresses me or my church.

When these politicians scream about religious liberty being attacked or curtailed, so often it’s a smokescreen to draw attention away from other issues or else they mean that the bigotry and fear-mongering of their particular brand of “Christianity” is  being exposed for what it is. Do you see these same people worrying about the freedom of expression or inclusion of Muslims, Wiccans/pagans, atheists or even other Christians, in national life or local decision-making? No. More likely they are promoting suspicion and hatred against people who do not share the beliefs of their fundamentalist supporters, with their checklist of hot-button, litmus-test issues.

The real threat to religious liberty is when government makes one brand of faith of any stripe and anywhere along the conservative-liberal spectrum, the de facto national/state/local official religion. That’s done when the leaders use their offices as bully pulpits to promote their own denomination, rather than values that may be common to all. It happens when there is no religious diversity on boards and in cabinets or when governments adopt one religiously-influenced viewpoint as the official one.

I’m glad there is no religious test for “any office or public trust under the United States” (Article VI of the Constitution). I wish there were no such test, implicit or explicit, at any level of civil leadership. And the Bill of Rights protects government from religion and religion from government. That “wall of separation” (Thomas Jefferson) has served us well these many years.

Politicians, whoever you are, leave religion to the church, the synagogue, the mosque, and other bodies equipped and called to promote and practice it. Do your job, which is to govern with justice and promote the common good.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham