Friday, December 18, 2015

Religious instruction in public schools

You have probably heard about the angry reaction to a homework assignment in a geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton, Virginia. In an attempt to show students the artistry of the letters of the Arabic language, pupils were asked to copy a phrase that is translated "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah." This was a standard assignment from a textbook, not one created by the teacher.

While some of the responses to the assignment may have been over the top, it is easy to see why many were outraged. The phrase that students were asked to recreate is known as the shahada, the first of the five pillars of Islam. From an evangelical Christian perspective, the assignment would be roughly equivalent to asking all students to copy John 3:16. Many Christians balked at students being forced to learn in a public school the fundamental statement of faith of another religion and it's not hard to see why.

This episode illustrates why it is crucial to preserve separation of church and state. Learning about the faith statements of other religions is a fruitful exercise in the proper setting. Loving our neighbors certainly includes getting to know them, including their religion if they have one, especially if that religion is different. 

As an academic exercise, students should learn about other religions. Yet they should not be required to write or say the central affirmation of faith of any religion. The former is an important educational exercise about our world while the latter could be construed as a confession of faith.  

This incident shows how problematic it would be to remove the wall of separation between church and state. If government forces religious instruction on any citizen then that citizen's religious liberty is abridged. If all are not free then none are free. The best way to ensure religious liberty for all is through the mechanism of church-state separation. 

Certainly the timing of this case is unfortunate. Again, Christians are called to love their neighbors, including their Muslim neighbors. Recently our public discourse has included some vitriolic statements against Muslims and the event in Staunton, Virginia could further inflame such sentiments which is tragic. Nonetheless, this controversial homework assignment and the reaction to it reminds us that we are blessed to live in a land that enshrines religious liberty in its founding documents through separation of church and state.  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Keeping Muslims out and shutting down mosques

A certain presidential candidate is getting a lot of attention because he advocates closing the borders of the United States to Muslims. He is, thankfully, being condemned from nearly every direction, it seems. Other candidates from his own party as well as other leaders from his own party have denounced his plan.

But what about the anti-Muslim comment made last month by the same candidate? It was about three weeks ago, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, that the same candidate proposed closing mosques in this country. In fact, he said that we would "have no choice" but to shut down some mosques. That comment got some attention, but I don't think it made as big of a splash as this latest one.

In the space of about three weeks, a leading presidential candidate has offered two proposals for addressing terrorism that destroy the notion of religious liberty. Baptists have traditionally proclaimed that if all are not free then none are free. We cannot shut down the houses of worship of any religious group or close our borders to members of any religion and still claim to support religious liberty for all. And if we don't advocate religious liberty for all then we don't support religious liberty at all.

One of the very first Baptists, Thomas Helwys, wrote the very first treatise on religious freedom in the English language in 1612. Helwys wrote, "Let them be heretikes, Turks [i.e. Muslims], Jewes or whatsoever, it apperteynes not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure." John Leland was a Baptist minister and a leader in the struggle for the Bill of Rights in this country. He was one of a few from the revolutionary era writing that religious tolerance was not enough. According to Leland, "all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [i.e. Muslims], Pagans, and Christians." From our earliest days, Baptists have singled out Muslims as they have advocated religious freedom for all.

My primary interest in this matter is not my desire for the success or failure of any particular candidate for office. My passion is for religious liberty which is a God-given right, not a governmental gift or privilege to be taken away from any individual or group for any reason. If our fears drive us to reject the cherished, God-given right of religious freedom then the terrorists win.  


Friday, July 24, 2015

What's the hurry about restarting the death penalty in NC?

What's the hurry about restarting the death penalty in North Carolina? There hasn't been an execution in this state since August 18, 2006. After several legal challenges were filed against the death penalty, a de facto moratorium began in 2007. Now a bill is poised to make its way to the floor of the state Senate next week that could pave the way for executions to begin again. 

What's the hurry? 

The fact that Henry McCollum was released from death row here in North Carolina about nine months ago would seem to give us a pretty good reason not to be in a hurry to start executions again. After more than three decades on death row, DNA evidence exonerated McCollum. If it weren't for the moratorium that has been in place since 2007, he almost certainly would have been killed by "we the people" years ago for a crime that he didn't commit. But now, less than a year after such a horrible mistake has been exposed, we are in a hurry to start executions again. 

The case of Alan Gell deserves some mention here as well. He spent four years on death row here in North Carolina before his sentence was vacated in 2002 when evidence previously withheld revealed that Gell was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Even though we know that we were ready to execute at least two innocent men in this young century we are now hurrying to crank up the lethal injections again. 

Of course, there was also the botched execution in in Oklahoma last year. Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer, was given a lethal injection, but something went wrong. He began writing in pain and mumbling something unintelligible. Doctors on site halted the procedure, but Lockett was pronounced dead 25 minutes later after he suffered an apparent heart attack. The whole process took 40 minutes when it should have taken only a fraction of that.  Yet, even with this recent, serious problem with a lethal injection, lawmakers in this state are hurrying to begin lethal injections.

Maybe we need to slow down a bit and consider whether we should replace the death penalty with life without parole due to the cost of the death penalty if nothing else. Many studies have shown that the death penalty, with its necessary and required appeals process, costs millions more than sentencing an inmate to life without parole. (The cases of Henry McCollum and Alan Gell show us that we can't afford to eliminate the appeals process if we keep the death penalty.) Fox News reported that North Carolina could save $11 million per year by substituting life in prison for the death penalty. We could put a lot more law enforcement officers on the street to prevent murders with $11 million per year.

Death penalty supporters say that this punishment is needed as a matter of justice. Gordon "Randy" Steidl has a unique perspective on that question because he experienced both sides, as it were. He lived on death row and in the general prison population after his sentence was commuted to life. Eventually it was proven that Steidl was wrongfully convicted and he was released. After his experience, Steidl says today, "If you really want to kill someone, give them life without parole. It's worse than dying." When we sentence murderers to life in prison without parole, in a real sense, we take their lives.

My struggle with the death penalty is based on biblical teaching. This study would be a long blog entry in itself. But, briefly, I am moved by the account of Cain who murdered his brother Abel according to Genesis 4. God's punishment of Cain was not death (or even prison), yet Cain said that it was more than he could bear. Furthermore, God said that anyone who killed Cain for his crime would suffer a punishment that was seven times worse. God's example to us in the case of the first murderer was that he should not be punished by death.

The Apostle Paul's teaching that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation in Romans 1 also informs my position on the death penalty. The power of God can transform anyone, including murderers. But not if we give a murderer a lethal injection first. 

To the best of my knowledge, all known first degree murderers in North Carolina are locked safely away from the public in pretty unpleasant places, stripped of their freedom which many call a fate worse than death. So, really, what's the hurry about cranking up the lethal injection machine again?   

Monday, June 22, 2015

Who cares about church style if you don't care about church, period

On April 30, Rachel Held Evans wrote another piece in which she says that the key to attracting millennials back to church is not about trying to make church cool. Indeed, she contends that the effort to make church hipper has the potential to do more harm than good with young adults. Evans cites research indicating  that 67 percent of millennials prefer a "classic" church over a "trendy" church.

All of that may be true, but I think it may miss the main point. In a response to a similar column by Evans two years ago, David Hayward said that the millennials he knows just don't care about church--it does not appear in the scope of their needs. I think he's on to something.

I used to be a fan of The West Wing, a TV show which gave viewers a behind the scenes look at the presidency of fictional president Jeb Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. In an episode during Bartlet's reelection campaign, one of Bartlet's consultants urged him to support a constitutional amendment against flag burning. The consultant was convinced that such a stance would garner Bartlett a lot of votes because polling indicated that an overwhelming percentage of Americans supported an amendment against flag burning.

Later in the episode, however, another consultant revealed that, in addition to measuring support for a flag burning amendment, she had also measured the passion of respondents concerning the issue. It turned out that most Americans surveyed would claim support for an amendment against flag burning but few really cared one way or the other about the issue.

I suspect the same may be true with the research that Evans cites. Most millennials may say to a pollster that they prefer a "classic" church to a "trendy" church. But my sense is that most of that majority doesn't care much about any church of any persuasion. If such a large majority of millennials are so enamored with classic/traditional churches, then why aren't they packing the pews of such churches (because, in most cases, they aren't)?

Of course, we must not paint with too broad a brush. Many millennials care deeply about the church. Many millennials returned to church specifically because they found a trendy church that they like. Many millennials don't have to return to church because they never left.

While millennials aren't a monolithic lot, there's lots of research suggesting they are are leaving the church in large numbers. Church "style" considerations are not inconsequential in responding to this concern. But maybe a higher priority involves more conversations with millennials about the fundamental nature of the church.

Have we forgotten how radical and exciting the body of Christ is in its essence? That's a good subject for another blog entry or maybe two. Meanwhile, should we expect millennials (or anyone else) to care about the style of the meetings of a body that they don't really care about in the first place?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

An uncomfortable intersection

Are there many people out there in the U.S. who now who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a bad idea? That's the legislation, by the way, that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin. I have no doubt that there are still some in this nation who are miffed that discrimination in these categories is now barred by law. But not many, right? Don't the overwhelming majority of people in this land now agree that this landmark legislation was a good idea?

Actually we have long albeit uneven history of defending certain rights in the U.S. After all, this country pioneered the enshrinement of basic rights with the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Certainly this is not the only nation to advocate equality for its citizens and our record on civil rights has not always been glowing by any stretch. But when we decide to grant a certain right to the people then we tend to get pretty worked up about any violation of that right.

This nation was the first in history to set forth religious liberty as a basic human right in its founding documents. It goes without saying that adherents to a particular religion tend to be zealous for the beliefs of their faith. Any infringement of religious freedom is typically met with passionate opposition.   

Now we have a controversy over Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) recently passed in Indiana and Arkansas (and there is a similar bill proposed here in North Carolina). Critics say these measures allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Supporters say these laws protect religious liberty.

This is exactly why the remaining debate concerning homosexuality and particularly same-sex marriage has the potential to be especially intense and difficult in this culture.

Many of those who support same-sex marriage see it as a civil rights issue. Many of those who oppose same-sex marriage see it as a religious issue. Emotions run high among those who believe their civil rights or the civil rights of those they love have been violated. Emotions run high among those who believe they are being forced to abandon their religious beliefs. 

I'm concerned that this debate and the actions surrounding it could get really ugly. What am I talking about? It has already gotten pretty ugly. 

Do you remember or do you know the history surrounding the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964? It got seriously ugly at times. Deadly ugly. In that case the intersection was between equality and a long tradition of bigotry. Sure, some tried to defend ongoing racial discrimination on religious grounds, but those arguments were always faulty and shrill. 

The debate over same-sex marriage involves an intersection between supporters who see their position as an matter of equality and detractors who see their position as a matter of religion. Actually, there are many defenders of same-sex marriage who build their arguments on religious grounds. In that case the intersection is between opposing religious views and I'm guessing that we all know how messy religious wars can be.

My concern here is not to take a side. I'm just wondering about the answer to this question: Can we navigate such a highly charged debate without doing serious damage to one one another? Can we talk about it without using words that wound and create perhaps irreconcilable differences between family members, friends, church members, co-workers, etc.? Can we keep our actions in support of our respective positions peaceful? Can we strive to understand one another before jumping immediately to attempts to marginalize one another?

Maybe my concern is overblown. After all, the governors of Indiana and Arkansas sought changes in the laws in question in order to address the concerns that have been raised. Governor McCrory has expressed his displeasure with the RFRA proposed here in North Carolina and some legislators whose support was assumed have distanced themselves from it. Interestingly this political back peddling happened not when the LGBT community complained but when big business interests got their backs. 

Be that as it may, the apparently quick rise and fall of these laws, proposed or enacted, may be a signal that opinions on same-sex marriage have shifted to the degree that opponents can expect much less hope of success than in the recent past. Yet I remain concerned that there are still large numbers of people in this country gathered at an uncomfortable and possibly dangerous intersection.

I pray that we find ways to love our neighbors as we navigate this intersection.