Sunday, September 11, 2005

The truth about the wall of separation

I had an unhappy learning experience this morning. I learned that I need to review every bulletin insert proposed for inclusion in the church bulletin, even when the source has been trustworthy in the past.

When I arrived in Tarentum almost three years ago, I discovered that Central Presbyterian Church had a tradition of including a bulletin insert called "Glimpses" from the Christian History Institute on Communion Sundays. Today was a Communion Sunday. The "Glimpses" for today was Issue #187; the article was entitled "The Truth about the Wall of Separation", written by Constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead and was reprinted by permission from The Rutherford Institute. I wish I had read it before the bulletin was assembled for Sunday.

The Constitutional analysis in this issue was good. I blame myself for not pulling this article for three gratuitous and unhelpful comments that feed a whiny version of American Christianity that I would like to leave in the dustbin of history.
"Unfortunately, this phrase ["separation of church and state"] has been used by special interest groups to oppress religious Americans and keep them from exercising their basic rights. However, both history and logic dispute the false claim that this oppression is authorized by the Constitution."
Who are these "special interest groups?" Who are these bogeymen intent on oppressing religious Americans? What forms does this "oppression" take? In the context of this paragraph - or of the first three pages of the article - the author is silent. He leaves to the reader to assign to these terms whatever meaning the reader desires. If the reader has already been told that she or he is being oppressed, these sentences buttress that impression, whether it is well-founded or not.

Whitehead's organization, the Rutherford Institute, describes itself as a "civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated." They also publish occasional reports on pending or decided cases that affect religious liberty. I wish the comment above had been supported by a couple of the examples Whitehead could have given. There genuinely are situations in which government entities err with oppressive effect as they try to find a path that honors the prohibition against the establishment of religion. I am glad that there are attorneys such as Whitehead defending First Amendment liberties, but I don't believe that there is a general oppression of religious Americans. This morning I stepped into a pulpit to preach the Gospel in a sermon I prepared without any government oversight, to a congregation who were not in any way hindered by the government in their access to the house of worship - well, except for the construction site on the New Kensington bridge that delayed everybody, churchgoer or not.

It was in the penultimate paragraph in the article that the article unnecessarily gave an explanation for the false allegation of oppression:
Jefferson's wall-of-separation philosophy was one of the Supreme Court's major arguments in removing prayer and Bible reading from the public schools.
This is a very unfortunate oversimplification of what the Supreme Court decided. The Supreme Court did not remove prayer and Bible reading from the public schools. It banned school-administered prayer and Bible reading from the public schools. At least Whitehead did not claim that the Supreme Court had banished the Almighty, Eternal, and Omnipresent God from the public schools.

In closing the article Whitehead says:
The First Amendment, therefore, provides freedom for religion. It does not, as we so often hear today, provide freedom from religion.
Maybe I move in the wrong circles, but I can't think of a time when anyone has ever told me that the First Amendment provides freedom from religion. And I've talked to people who would like to shut me up, but they've just told me to shut up without the pseudo-Constitutional rationale. Maybe in Mr. Whitehead's litigation practice he encounters people who say this frequently, but I do not believe that it is an argument offered that commonly.

I do not like the whiny approach to the Christian faith that tries to make the schools, the courthouses, or the state responsible for the Church's failure to tell the good news to others. It is high time for the Christian Church to accept the responsibility the Risen Christ gave us in the Great Commission and be about our work without blaming others for our imagined "oppression."

And, yes, it was my fault I did not read the insert before the Sunday bulletin was assembled. As a penance I'll review all the upcoming Glimpses tomorrow.

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