This is an important day in American religious history. I mean besides it being the 38th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which eventually resulted in a few politicians getting religion briefly.
It was on this date in 1963 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared -- for the second year in a row -- that it was unconstitutional for public schools to organize prayers (and devotional Bible readings) for their students.
In some ways the misguided reaction to these cases helped to create a religious and political divide in our country that has never healed.
What was the misguided reaction? It was to declare that the court had thrown God out of the schools. It was to bemoan a supposedly inevitable drift toward secularism. It was to say that the government was now and would become increasingly hostile to religion.
There are, of course, good reasons to worry about how government treats religion. And sometimes government gets it wrong and needs to have its behavior changed.
But to describe these 1962 and 1963 rulings as attacks on religion is not only bad civics, it's bad theology.
Faith communities -- not school districts or any other governmental body -- should be in charge of their own religious practices, symbols and traditions. When they turn those elements over to the government, religion suffers.
So people of faith should have been applauding these two court rulings. And people of faith should do everything they can to prevent their most powerful religious symbols from being usurped by the government. For instance, churches should always object to having local officials create a winter holiday display on public property that places a Nativity Scene next to Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus. That debases religion. Let churches worry about their own symbols while the government worries about the flag and the eagle.
I've never understood why some religious communities don't understand this. It's as if they worry that their religions are so weak that they need to be propped up by the government. Folks, Constantinian Christendom is over. Dead. Kaput. Good riddance. Christianity and all other faiths can and should stand on their own strength without promotion from the government.
In an absolutist and purist construction of this, that would include doing away with tax exempt status for religious communities, but the power to tax is the power to destroy, and I am unwilling to give the government that power over religion.
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PLEASE SIKH THE RIGHT APPROACH
Things in South Carolina politics seem to be deteriorating even further. After various sexual questions raised in the race for governor, now religion has become the whipping boy. Good heavens. Let me say it again: The only legitimate question about a candidate's religion (besides any issues he or she voluntarily raises) is whether and how one's beliefs might affect public policy and performance. Everything else is out of bounds.
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P.S.: My latest column for The National Catholic Reporter now is online. It's about a Catholic college that gave an award to a rabbi (and teacher) for his interfaith writings and work. To read it, click here.
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THE BOOK CORNER
The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness, by Donald Altman. As you may know if you know anything about Buddhism, "mindfulness" is a core principle in that tradition, and this author, a former Buddhist monk, delves deeply into what it means and how it can help people live more balanced lives in these stressful times. Buddhism, as you also may know, is a tradition that does not proclaim a belief in a god or, for that matter, a nonbelief. Rather, it focuses on helping people relieve the suffering in their lives and in the world around them. So if you're looking for a theological book on approaches to living stress free, this isn't it. What this book does is to draw on the central ideas in Buddhism and give you ways to use those ideas. But it's not just for Buddhists or adherents of other Eastern religions. There are techniques and ideas here that can be helpful to many people.