Friday, February 27, 2009

Govenment choosing of preferred religions

Did you hear about the Supreme Court decision this week related to placing religious monuments on government property? There is a park owned by the city of Pleasant Grove, Utah in which stands a donated monument listing the Ten Commandments. Another small religious group called Summum sought to give the city a monument depicting some of its basic precepts called the "Seven Aphorisms of Summum." The city refused the gift from Summum and the sect sued saying their free speech rights had been violated. On Wednesday the high court ruled that Pleasant Grove does not have to accept the gift from Summam.

The Supreme Court concluded that a lower court went too far when it forced a government entity to effectively endorse the views of a private group on public property. Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the court's decision, wrote, “The Free Speech Clause restricts government regulation of private speech; it does not regulate government speech." In this perhaps narrow sense the ruling makes sense. It seems to me that the lower court ruling could force the government to accept and display monuments from white supremacist religious groups such as the Christian Identity Church or those of Satan worshipping groups.

However, all of this begs the question of whether the city should have accepted the monument to the Ten Commandments in the first place. Now a government entity is placed in the position of deciding which religious teachings should and should not be displayed on public property which opens a different can of worms. It did not escape the notice of the Supreme Court that, while a lower court may have improperly applied the Free Speech Clause, the situation in Pleasant Grove, Utah may run afoul with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In an opinion that concurred with the decision of the court but not with its reasoning, Justice David Souter wrote, "If the monument has some religious character, the specter of violating the Establishment Clause will behoove it to take care to avoid the appearance of a flat-out establishment of religion."

In a statement, J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), said “the government should not be able to pick and choose the favored religion and then erect a monument endorsing the religion’s scriptural precepts.” The BJC had filed a friend of the court brief asking that the Establishment Clause dimension of the case be considered, but the high court did not take up that question. However it probably will in the near future. The attorney for Summam has announced his intention to amend the lawsuit to include church-state separation claims.

It is worth noting that Baptists who were around at the founding of this nation would not have agreed with the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property and they surely would not have quietly accepted the notion of the government picking and choosing what religious teachings it will display. They were strict adherents to the principle of the separation of church and state. John Leland, perhaps the most prominent U.S. Baptist leader of the late 1700's, opposed the closing of Post Offices on Sunday because he said it amounted to government favoritism toward Christian teaching. Leland and the Baptists of his time were firm in their conviction that government should show preference for no religion.

Sadly many Baptists of today reject the view of their spiritual ancestors in this country. Based on the teachings of Christ and their experience as a persecuted minority, Baptists of the late 1700's in this land said what was later affirmed in all three editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963 and 2000): "Church and state should be separate." For the good of the church and for the good of the spread of the gospel, Baptists at the founding of this nation were among the strongest proponents of a strict church-state separation. Tragically, in more recent times, some prominent Baptist leaders have called the separation of church and state "a modern fabrication" and "the figment of some infidel's imagination."

Would that all Baptists of today would again embrace authentic religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state. After all, when Satan tempted Jesus to use the power of government to accomplish his mission, the Lord turned him down.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I wish Eric Holder was right

Attorney General Eric Holder
I wish Eric Holder was right because I think he gives most Americans more credit than we deserve when he calls us "cowards" on racial matters. Attorney General Holder, in a much-discussed speech delivered on February 18, indicated that we do not talk to each other enough about race because "it is an issue we have never been at ease with ..." Many have criticized the Attorney General as harsh in applying the term "cowards" to American efforts in the realm of race relations. Unfortunately it is probably more accurate to say that Holder was overly kind to us in his assessment.

The Attorney General believes that we do not have many if any serious conversations with each other about race because we find the subject too difficult to broach. To some extent he is right and where we Americans avoid the subject of race due to the level of difficulty involved we are being cowards. says that a coward is "a person who lacks courage in facing ... difficulty." So, to the degree that we fail to discuss race because of the difficulty in doing so, we are in fact being cowards.

But around here, the main impediment in having serious conversations about racial matters is more sinister than cowardice. We do not avoid the subject of race because we are cowards; we avoid it because we are apathetic. Most of our neighborhoods lack racial diversity and don't care. Most of our churches lack racial diversity and we don't care. Most of our social gatherings lack racial diversity and we don't care. We don't care because, truth be told, most of us like it that way.

Eric Holder suggests that we want to improve race relations and to move ahead but we are just scared to have the necessary conversations. I wish he were correct because it would mean that addressing the ongoing racial divide in this country is simply a matter of overcoming our fear of discussing the problem. But I am afraid that it is more accurate to say that, for the most part, we do not move forward in improving race relations because we do not care about moving forward and we do care about moving forward because we do not want to move forward.

Having said that Holder gives us more credit than we deserve in calling us cowards when it comes to race, it is too bad that one of the suggestions in his speech has been overlooked in the tempest over his perceived inflammatory language. The Attorney General challenged you to "use the opportunity of [Black History] month to talk with your friends and co-workers on the other side of the divide about racial matters." Holder believes that "in this way we can hasten the day when we truly become one America." I am all for any opportunity to have that sort of conversation. Maybe if we talk more about racial matters then we will begin to care more about doing the right thing in race relations.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Shocking entrance requirements

In a biography of James Madison, Ralph Ketcham quotes the entrance requirements of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1769. Among other things, incoming freshmen had to be able to "render Virgil and Tully's orations into English and to turn English into true and grammatical Latin, and to be so well acquainted with the Greek, as to render any part of the Four Evangelists [Gospels] in that language into Latin or English ..." Again, these were among the entrance requirements for undergraduate work.

I find this incredible. I did not begin to learn Greek until I entered a Masters program in theology and even then I didn't learn it well enough to render any part of the gospels into English without the aid of a Greek dictionary. And translating any part of the gospels from Greek into Latin? I could not begin to do that after graduating from a Masters program in theology. Yet such skill was the expected general base of knowledge for 17 or 18 year-olds entering college in the latter half of the 1700's.

I watched too much TV growing up.

I really did. Now, on top of TVs, we have video games, MP3 players and cell phones to help turn our brains into mush. Most of us need to study more and entertain ourselves with mindless garbage less. Maybe we need to entertain ourselves more with truly enlightening knowledge.

We have become accustomed to junk food for the brain as we have become accustomed to junk food for our bodies. There is a lot of talk about the "obesity epidemic" in America. I think our brains are as out of shape as our bodies.

"Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge" (Proverbs 23:12, TNIV).