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Editorial: Church and State at the Inauguration and Elsewhere

(A Guest Editorial in the Wake of the LCC Crisis)

Two ministers at the Inauguration of George W. Bush prayed in the name of Jesus Christ. The Rev. Franklin Graham even used a Trinitarian formula in closing. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell offered his “humble prayer in the name that’s above all names, Jesus, the Christ.” He then added, “Let all who agree say ‘Amen.”

Brother Caldwell had second thoughts and hinted that if he had it to do it over, he probably would not utter either of those phrases. Brother Franklin had announced his intention the day before. “I always pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” Translation: “Dubya  knows what is coming.”

Was that a violation of church and state?

Strictly speaking, since this was an official state occasion, it certainly has the faint odor of state sponsorship of a particular religion. Even if not, it was, in the words of the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, “inappropriate and insensitive.”

If you are ordained and invited to pray on this occasion, would you accept? If you did, would you pray in the name of Jesus Christ? If not, how would you pray? Would you  abhor any specific  Christian references and address the Deity without much fussiness about which God you had in mind. You could in the name of what Benjamin Franklin called the “publick theology” speak of God with no more specificity than to suggest that God was Creator and in favor of justice.

But if you are going the route of “civil religion,” (Bellah), why do you need a Christian minister to pray in this general fashion? Should a Christian be expected to shed his/her particular identity in order to be an exponent of the “religion of the Republic” (Meade) with its broad identification with the Semitic traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but not congenial to conceptions of ultimacy in the great religions of the East conceive of  Ultimacy. Don’t Buddhist citizens count?

Dilemma: In the interests of inclusiveness, how can we avoid a general slide down to the lowest common denominator that becomes so vapid as to lose all merit? Vague piety probably deserves the fate of lukewarm water as specified in Revelation  3:15-16. Including everybody has a price.

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Don’t have prayers at the Inauguration because there is no attractive third way between empty universalism and offensive particularity. That way even atheist can feel included.

Barry Lynn went on to chide the Rev. Graham for asking God’s assistance in helping the President reject what was contrary to “Your statutes and holy law.” He was  putting God’s law above the country’s law, according to the leader of AUSCS.

“In a secular society, that is wrong.”

Now, as we professionals say, that surely requires some unpacking, or if we are avant-garde or post-modern, calls for some parsing.

Surely Lynn, never a shrinking violet, does not mean that Christian believers should not appeal to their understanding of God to criticize governmental policy even among them. But even in a public, political context, his point must be qualified.

All law is based on something.  “Civil religion” itself holds that certain principles and some human rights are grounded in the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God.

The Declaration of Independence is explicit about this. Abolitionists and women’s rights advocates in the 19th century appealed to Natural Law, i. e., God’s law. Calling this a Christian nation is going too far, but references to God are embedded in  the national fabric, even if some Deistic fibers are woven  into the mix.

The American coins say, “In God we trust.” Appeals to God in the political arena, however, should be based on public reason, i. e., principles open in principle to everyone and not on the religious tenets of a specific religion or denomination. Neither secular humanism nor religious doctrine is privileged.

If somebody does appeal to the Bible or to the Pope as God’s mouthpiece and convinces other on this basis, well, that’s just the way it goes in this messy democracy. However, whatever we believe in our hearts and in church, it is better in the political realm not to appeal to God, but to justify law because it enhances liberty and equality, promotes justice, and increases the common good. On this basis atheists can make their pitch along with us Baptists.  Maybe that is all Lynn meant.

Let us not get too persnickety about ideological purity. What about the chaplains who pray to the Congress/Legislature (although in form they are addressing a Higher Power)? Don’t we pay Christian military chaplains to serve communion in the name of Jesus? And what about those tax deductions gospel ministers get for housing allowance? Is that state support of religion? Sounds suspiciously like it to me. It certainly is as unjust and indefensible as it gets.

No rebellion among the masses of the ministerial troops has come to my attention.

The issue of government support for  faith-based  human services is  full of complications, dangers, ambiguities, and subtleties. The beauty of religiously-oriented social ministries is the potential for dealing with people as whole selves, i. e., giving them food for the soul as well as for the body. But this very unity poses the problem of how it is Constitutionally  licit for the government to enable the providing of secular bread without funding sectarian religion.

If, on the other hand, the delivery of goods and services to the needy is totally divorced  from the religious dimension, in what meaningful sense is it any longer faith-based, apart from merely being sponsored by a religious group? Why shouldn’t the government fund a church soup kitchen if all that is dispensed is soup? Because, we say, what the church would spend on soup can now be spent on  the church bus.

But maybe they would just serve more soup. Maybe the soup itself is a  witness to the faith behind it, but if it is, is that not a sponsorship of religion? Would the government discriminate against some religious groups? Would giving government money to churches tend to dull the prophetic urge to be critical of the state? Would the government require conformity to certain rules that would restrict church autonomy? What is a religious group? What  does faith-based mean? Can we think our way through this thicket without falling into confusion?

A strict and purist position on these matters is impossible in practical terms. Many lines have to be drawn in shades of gray. We have to do a lot of British “muddling through.”  Those who look for absolutely clear prescriptions requiring no delicate balancing acts are doomed to perpetual frustration. Or they may be tempted to resort to desperate efforts to find purity of doctrine by suppressing legitimate elements in the total ensemble of principles that govern the nation.

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