Despite the warnings of our founders about mixing religion and government, proponents of religion call upon government to support their teachings whenever possible. That runs from the schoolroom to the halls of the White House and Congress. Well, it isn’t religion in all its uncountable stripes, but ones in the majority or with the most political clout.
Americans have gotten used to the National Day of Prayer (in May) and the National Prayer Breakfast (the 2015 instalment just ended in Washington). Persons committed to slowing down and, if possible, stopping the piggy backing of religious belief on government power oppose these incursions, frequently to no avail.
Everyone knows religious belief has a thousand faces, often in direct opposition one to another, all without evidence figuring in their provenance. Being without evidence calls for fighting hard to maintain converts and, when possible, special social and governmental favors. Nor is fighting dirty out of the question, leading to civil shaming, special rights for favored religious bodies, frank discrimination, horrendous persecution, imprisonment, torture, and death.
The worst of those treatments have in Western civilization been curtailed in severity and frequency by Enlightenment advances (largely opposed by religions and the religious as they occurred). To see religion in the absence of those Enlightenment-spurred advances, consider the Dark Ages of the West and Islam in the present day.
In addressing the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month President Obama made the politically risky mistake of reflecting on Christianity’s most shameful centuries, though not in an effort to comment on the truth either of Islam or Christianity. He focused on the self-serving tendency in any faith which tends toward seeing “the mote in [our] brother’s eye” while ignoring “the beam [in our] own eye” (Matthew 7:5). He referred to the “Crusades and the Inquisition [in which] people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” then, bringing it closer to home, “slavery and Jim Crow . . . justified in the name of Christ.” At no point did he attack the dogma or faith of Christianity, but did scold our very human tendency to “get on a high horse” over even the mention of our own “motes.”
I took that admonishment to be true not only of Baptists, Catholics, and Muslims, but of atheists as well (though he did not single us out). “It’s not unique to one group or one religion,” he said. “There is a tendency in us—a sinful tendency—that can pervert and distort our faith.” He is, obviously, kinder to religion than I would be, for I think there’s plenty of evidence that religion presents not only modeling for moral behavior, but modelling for atrocious behavior, all in the same book. However, the president was on a tear about motes and beams, a lesson we can all relearn from regularly. (On the other hand, why any president, including Obama, thinks he is elected to be our theologian-in-chief mystifies me.)
Millions of reasonable Christians, honestly open to criticism likely heard his point as intended and agreed with it. But as could have been predicted, the hypocritical high horse syndrome took over, especially by people with a vested interest in finding fault with the president whatever he says or leaves unsaid. Representative of the high horse ilk, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, called the president’s comments “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime . . . [a bit of overreach there, Jim? JBC] He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”
Apparently, one of those values is that anyone’s questioning or criticizing Christian misbehavior is offensive. Another is that it is OK to lie about that which offends us or to alter the facts just enough to spread our rewrite as if it were truth, such as one I just heard, calling Obama’s remarks a “blast at Christ and Christianity . . . in the absence of any similar repudiation of Islam’s ‘prophet’.” I looked in vain for a “blast” at Christ that would have called for a balancing treatment of Mohammed. I looked for a “blast at Christianity” as well, but found only a blast at the human foible exhibited by the faithful of any religion.
Let me say that an easy “out” here is to say that Christian conservatives will misrepresent and lie to make their point. However, that would be a cheap shot because it implies Christian liberals and people of no faith at all don’t do the same thing. Frankly, it is distressing that our moral codes seem not to deal with this type of “bearing false witness” and that those who go furthest to claim the moral high ground are among the worst offenders.
American founders went out of their way to avoid establishing the United States as a “Christian nation,” despite the currently popular Christian right revisionism and its discredited “historian,” David Barton. Yet Christians (mostly) and religious Jews (somewhat) will cross the line toward theocracy as much as others’ tolerance allows. (Muslims as a group certainly would, but thankfully don’t yet have the necessary numbers in the West.) Accordingly, the National Prayer Breakfast acts as if it theologically represents the country as a whole and the government of this country. This NPB, by the way, featured sports figure Darrell Waltrip; preaching that “if you don’t know Jesus as your lord and savior . . . you’re going to hell.”
Remember that this was a high level event, one that has almost attained a governmentally sanctioned role in the political calendar. By its very nature as well as its development, it promotes a favored religious voice while denying others (can you imagine access to the podium by an Islam apologist, Mormon, Christian Scientist, or the late Christopher Hitchens?).
Keep in mind that my comments are not at all related to religious freedom—the liberty to define and to practice one’s faith. But it does bear on what in economics would be like the government “picking winners” among industries and companies . . . and is even more corrupting. In America, the phrase “religious freedom” has and deserves huge emotional and political support. This country was fortunate to have been founded in part on that freedom of conscience.
But religious freedom does not mean—as phrased in the subtitle of Robert Boston’s book, Taking Liberties—the “right to tell other people what to do,” nor to get the government on your side against all other religions and non-religion. We do not need the governor, school board, or city council to be our preachers. We certainly don’t need the president to attend to the fine distinctions of theology (weaving a safe course among the slight but highly charged differences) along with national defense, fiscal policy, and the White House National Easter egg roll as well.
Mixing religion and politics, giving government a voice in the religious “public square,” and having government endorse selected religious beliefs bear a frightening similarity to the theocracy favored in the Islamic world.