Did Your Church Have Patriotic Worship on Sunday?

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Did your church have a patriotic service yesterday?  Did you sing any patriotic songs?  My church did not.  I came in a few minutes late, but I don’t think the 4th of July was ever mentioned.  This does not mean that the leaders of my church are unpatriotic.  It means that they probably realize it is a bad idea to mix civil religion in the form of patriotic celebrations with Christian worship.

Over at The Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein has a nice piece on the debate over whether to bring patriotism into church.  The piece quotes my recent History News Network piece on the topic.

Here is a taste:

In 2016, LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that 61 percent of Protestant pastors agreed that it was “important for July Fourth worship services to incorporate patriotic elements to celebrate America. Fifty-three percent of pastors in that survey agreed that their congregation “sometimes seems to love America more than God.”

The context of 2018 may be new — rapidly changing religious and racial demographics in the United States, growing secularism, the explosion of Web-based faith — but debates about how churches handle July 4 began surfacing early in American history.

Catherine Brekus, a Harvard University historian of U.S. religion, noted that in the early 1800s, Methodists opposed Fourth of July celebrations on the grounds that they were not Christian. By the 1850s in Cleveland, Protestant ministers “usually took the lead in organizing 4th of July activities, and speeches were given in churches. After the 1850’s, ministers still gave benedictions, but the ceremonies were usually held outdoors, and commercial leaders and businesses were prominently involved,” she wrote in an email, noting historical accounts.

John Fea, a U.S. historian from Messiah College who just published a book about Christian nationalism, wrote in June for the History News Network about why activities such as July 4 services are being debated anew:

“Ever since the founding of the republic, a significant number of Americans have supposed that the United States is exceptional because it has a special place in God’s unfolding plan for the world. Since the early 17th century founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony by Puritans, evangelicals have relished their perceived status as God’s new Israel — His chosen people. America, they argued, is in a covenant relationship with God,” he wrote. Today, the anxiety about how to be Christian and American is high because history is being reexamined.

“The United States Constitution never mentions God or Christianity but does forbid religious tests for office. The First Amendment rejects a state-sponsored church and celebrates the free-exercise of religion. This is hardly the kind of stuff by which Christian nations are made.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Bible and the Constitution

reading-the-bible-with-the-founding-fathersIn a recent article at The Hill, American University political scientist Daniel Dreisbach reminds us that the Bible was important in the framing of the United States Constitution. (See his visit to the Author’s Corner here).  I appreciate Dreisbach’s work.  Many friends who take a more secular approach to the ideological origins of the Constitution have asked me what I think about Dreisbach’s views on the Bible and the founding.  Frankly, I think his book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers is excellent for what it does, namely showing that the Bible should not be neglected as a source of inspiration and ideas for many of the founding fathers.   In his interview with me about the book, Dreisbach wrote:

I contend that the Bible had a significant, yet often overlooked, influence on the political thought and discourse of the American founding and, therefore, it should be studied alongside other influences on the founding generation, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism.  The book examines the extensive and diverse uses of the Bible in the political discourse of the founding era, combining careful historical research, elementary political theory, and biblical interpretation.

I imagine that Dreisbach has no problem with the idea that the Bible was one of many sources that informed the thinking of the founding fathers.

Here is a taste of Dreisbach’s piece at The Hill: “Liberty under law was always rooted in biblical principles.”

Legal commentators have pointed to additional examples of the Bible’s influence on specific constitutional provisions, including provisions on cruel and unusual punishment, the number of witnesses required in cases of treason, affirmation in the alternative to an oath, and corruption of blood.

Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 readily conceded that the document they wrote was imperfect, there was a consensus that it was the best that could be framed under the circumstances. And some, such as Benjamin Rush, “believed the hand of God was employed in this work,” just as surely as “God had divided the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel.”

Even the skeptic Benjamin Franklin, while disclaiming that the Convention’s work was “divinely inspired,” remarked that he could not conceive such a momentous achievement as framing “the new federal constitution” without it “being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent and beneficent Ruler.”

Commentators today may disagree that the Constitution was a product of Divine Providence or that it contains elements informed by Christianity, but the Bible was undisputedly among the intellectual sources that influenced the founders. Acknowledging the Bible’s often-neglected contributions to the founding project enriches our understanding of the nation’s great constitutional experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law.

As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, the Bible was important to the founding generation.  I was particularly interested in how the Bible was used, but Driesbach’s work goes much deeper and reveals just how much the eighteenth-century was saturated with biblical ideas.  Of course how that history is used today raises a very different set of issues and questions.  This is part of the reason I wrote a followup to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? titled Why Study History?

Alabama Republicans May Have Just Sent a Christian Nationalist to the Senate

Judge_Roy_MooreIf Judge Roy Moore is able to defeat his Democratic opponent in December, his ticket to the United States Senate will be punched.  Last night Moore defeated Luther Strange in an Alabama special election to fill Jeff Sessions’s old Senate seat.  The election has been getting a lot of attention because Donald Trump backed Strange, the GOP “establishment” backed Strange, and most of Trump’s supporters in Alabama supported Moore.  But let’s also remember that Moore believes that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation.

Moore made national headlines in 2001 when he was removed from his position as the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court because he refused to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments.  Moore was elected to Alabama’s highest court again in 2013, but was suspended in 2016 when he told probate judges under his authority to continue to enforce the state ban on same-sex marriage.  He resigned in April 2017 and soon after started his Senate campaign.

In August 2017, VOX reporter Jeff Stein interviewed Moore about his God and country beliefs.  Here is a taste of that interview:

Jeff Stein:

…Where should the limits be between religion and public life if you could?

Roy Moore:

You have to understand what religion is — the duties you owe to the creator.

And then it starts there first. You have to understand it was the duty of the government under the First Amendment, according to Joseph Story who was there for 37 years and wrote the stories on the Constitution.

It was the duty to foster religion and foster Christianity. He said at the time of the adoption of the Constitution that “it was the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America that Christianity ought to be favored by the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience.”

Read the entire interview and Stein’s accompanying article here.

If Thomas Jefferson Had His Way, There Would Be No Days of Prayer

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Here is Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808

I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I again express my satisfaction that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter, in which I could give my reasons more in detail than might have been done in a public answer: and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.

Notice Jefferson parts ways here with “his predecessors”–Adams and Washington.  Let the states have all the days of prayer that they want to have, but it is not appropriate for the federal government to call for such a day.

Clergy: Do Not Repeal The Johnson Amendment

Williams ChurchOver 4000 clergy want Congress to preserve the so-called Johnson Amendment.  You may recall that the repeal of this part of the federal tax code has been a major part of the court evangelical agenda and, by extension, Donald Trump’s appeal to evangelical voters.

Read our coverage of the Johnson Amendment here.

Click here to read the text of the clergy’s letter asking Congress to leave the Johnson Amendment alone.

Here is a taste:

As a leader in my religious community, I am strongly opposed to any effort to repeal or weaken current law that protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics. Changing the law would threaten the integrity and independence of houses of worship. We must not allow our sacred spaces to be transformed into spaces used to endorse or oppose political candidates.

Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines. The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice. Current law respects this independence and strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against. Nothing in current law, however, prohibits me from endorsing or opposing political candidates in my own personal capacity.

Changing the law to repeal or weaken the “Johnson Amendment” – the section of the tax code that prevents tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates –would harm houses of worship, which are not identified or divided by partisan lines. Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse.

Adele Banks has some context at Religion News Service.

It looks like most of the Christian signers are mainline Protestants.  I did not recognize too many names.  This is partly because most of the signers are local pastors and partly because I am not as familiar with mainline Protestantism as I am with evangelicalism.

Did You Know That God or the Divine is Mentioned in Every State Constitution?

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I knew it!  We really are a Christian nation!  🙂

The Pew Research Center has just released a report showing that each of the 50 state constitutions mention God or the divine.

Here is a taste:

All but four state constitutions – those in Colorado, Iowa, Hawaii and Washington – use the word “God” at least once. The constitutions in Colorado, Iowa and Washington refer to a “Supreme Being” or “Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” while Hawaii’s constitution makes reference to the divine only in its preamble, which states that the people of Hawaii are “grateful for Divine Guidance.”

Most state constitutions – 34 – refer to God more than once. Of the 116 times the word appears in state constitutions, eight are in the Massachusetts constitution, and New Hampshire and Vermont have six references each. Perhaps surprisingly, all three of these states are among the least religious in the country, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center analysis.

In addition to the 116 mentions of God, there are also 14 mentions of a Supreme or Sovereign Being, seven mentions of the “Creator,” three mentions of “providence,” four mentions of “divine” and 46 instances of the word “almighty.” While there are 32 mentions of the word “Lord,” all but one refer to “the year of our Lord” and so are not direct references to God. (Indeed, the U.S. Constitution also makes reference to “the year of our Lord.”) There also are seven mentions of the word “Christian.”

Read the entire post.

I am surprised I have not heard more about this report from all those Christian nationalists out there.

Praying for the President is Fine

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I have to slightly part ways here with Reverend William Barber II.  The liberal anti-Trump minister recently described the court evangelicals praying for Donald Trump as “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.”

As Cleve Wootson Jr.’s piece on Barber in the Independent notes, “the person sitting in the Oval Office needs all the help he can get–earthly or divine.”  Since Barber was not in the room, he does not know the content of these prayers.  That is the real issue here.

Yet knowing what we know about the court evangelicals, I am not optimistic that the prayer they offered was apolitical.

Praying for the president is not the problem.  Stuff like this is the problem.

Today’s Religion News Service Commentary: “Kentucky’s shrewd move to promote a Christian nationalist agenda”

Kentucky.  Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be familiar with a longer version of this piece.

Here is a taste of a shorter version syndicated today through Religion News Service:

(RNS) Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, recently signed House Bill 128 requiring the state Board of Education to establish an elective social studies course on the Old and New Testaments.

Kentucky lawmakers believe a course will “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, character, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

Bible courses in public schools are perfectly constitutional. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional.

But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools. Consider Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.”

If Kentucky has every constitutional right to hold “objective,” content-oriented Bible courses, why was it necessary to pass HB 128?

The passing of this law has little to do with the United States Constitution. It has everything to do with politics.

Parts of HB 128 should raise red flags. The wording suggests that the course should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events and assumes that the Bible informs virtually every area of American culture.

Read the rest here.

The Problem With Mixing Christianity and Nationalism

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Kyle Roberts is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.  He explains, from the perspective of Christian teaching, some of the problems with what happened last Sunday at First Baptist Church in Dallas.  I am glad that a theologian has commented on this story.  As a historian, my level of analysis is limited.

According to Roberts, there are 10 “negative consequences” when a church conflates nationalism and Christianity.

  1. It contributes to false assumptions of God’s special blessing or privilege
  2. It confuses the power of God with the power of the State
  3. It confuses the gospel of grace with the “good news” of material wealth and security.
  4. It undermines the separation of church and state
  5. It undercuts the prophetic power that Christianity needs in order to be salt and light
  6. It makes us forget that nation-states are a recent development
  7. It undermines the cross
  8. It replaces transcendence with immanence
  9. It disrespects those who have been marginalized by the configuration of powers in the nation-state
  10. It suggests that the basis of Christian hope is not the counter-cultural Messiah, but the “worldly” powers of the State.

Click here to see how Roberts develops each of these points at his blog Unsystematic Theology.  Great stuff.

Defending Religious Liberty is Good for Business. Just Ask Jay Sekulow.

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If what I am reading about Jay Sekulow is true, it tells us a lot about the Christian Right’s crusade for religious liberty.  Sekulow is a lawyer, talk show host, and chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ).

ACLJ was founded by Pat Roberson in 1990 at Regent University School of Law for the purpose of defending a conservative view of the United States Constitution.  Today the ACLJ is associated with Sekulow, a graduate of Regent Law School.

Back in 2005, the Legal Times described Sekulow as “the leading Supreme Court advocate of the Christian Right.”  This role apparently makes him a lot of money.  According to the Legal Times he used over $2.3 million from a nonprofit he controlled to buy two homes and lease a private jet.  Here is a taste of that article:

Sekulow’s financial dealings deeply trouble some of the people who have worked for him, leading several to speak with Legal Times during the past six months about their concerns — before Sekulow assumed his high-profile role promoting President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. 

“Some of us truly believed God told us to serve Jay,” says one former employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal. “But not to help him live like Louis XIV. We are coming forward because we need to believe there is fairness in this world.” 

Another says: “Jay sends so many discordant signals. He talks about doing God’s work for his donors, and then he flies off in his plane to play golf.” 

Still another told Legal Times, “The cause was so good and so valid, but at some point you can’t sacrifice what is right for the sake of the cause.” 

Sekulow shrugs off the criticism and makes no apologies. “I wouldn’t pretend to tell you we don’t pay our lawyers well,” including himself, says Sekulow. “As a private lawyer, I could bill $750 an hour, but I don’t.” He does lease a jet, he says, and he does sometimes use it to reach the golf course — but with donors or vendors, he insists. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years and never had a blip” of financial irregularity. 

Nothing in the relatively loose regulations that govern nonprofits prohibits family members from serving on boards, drawing salaries, or spending money. But critics say the extravagant spending burns up money that Sekulow solicits from donors for legal causes. Citing the high cost of litigating Supreme Court cases, Sekulow wrote in a 2003 fund-raising letter, “We are asking God to prompt every member of the ACLJ to get involved personally in this effort.” He added later, “Please send a generous gift right away.” 

Read the rest here.

Fast-forward to 2017 and it appears that little has changed with Jay Sekulow.  He continues to use appeals to God to fund his efforts and, apparently, his lavish lifestyle. The only major difference between 2005 and 2017 is that he now serves as counsel to the President of the United States.

Want to know what Sekulow has been up to since the Legal Times piece?  Click here.  And here.

I don’t know if what Jay Sekulow is doing is legal or not.  What I am interested in is the way that the crusade for religious liberty in America is lining his pockets.  (I do not know if Sekulow embraces the views of the so-called Prosperity Gospel, but it would not surprise me if he did). Sekulow is a regular commentator on Fox News and has become a prominent and bombastic legal voice for the Christian Right.  He has done a great deal to convince conservative evangelicals that their religious freedom is being threatened. He appeals to the fears of his followers.  When Sekulow shows up, conservative evangelicals are comforted.  He has their back. He will fight for them. He will take their case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Sekulow’s star will continue to rise among the Court Evangelicals as long as there are more and more threats–real and imagined– to religious liberty.  And as long as there are threats to religious liberty, Sekulow can keep asking for money.  Hmm….

Below is a video of Sekulow in action.  Notice how he and Megyn Kelly root their understanding of religious liberty in the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Did the Supreme Court “Strike Down a Major Church-State Barrier” Yesterday?

Trinity LutheranThe title of Atlantic writer Emma Green’s article on the Supreme Court’s recent Trinity Lutheran v. Comer is titled “The Supreme Court Strikes Down a Major Church-State Barrier.”

In case you are new to the case, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri cannot deny funds to a church because it is a religious institution.  Green writes:

Seven justices affirmed the judgment in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, albeit with some disagreement about the reasoning behind it. The major church-state case could potentially expand the legal understanding of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship, which could have implications for future policy fights—including funding for private, religious charter schools.  

Trinity Lutheran is a big case that hinges on mundane facts. In 2012, when Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri applied for a state grant to resurface its playground, it was ranked as a strong potential candidate for the program. Ultimately, though, Missouri denied the funding under a state constitutional provision that prohibits public money from going to religious organizations and houses of worship. “There is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his decision for the majority. “A church.”

The case focused on whether this decision conflicts with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and specifically whether Missouri was violating the free-exercise clause by preventing Trinity Lutheran from participating in a secular, neutral aid program. On Monday, the court overwhelmingly agreed that the answer was “yes.”

Read Green’s entire piece here.

Over at his blog Snakes and Ladders, Baylor English professor Alan Jacobs takes issue with the title of Green’s piece.

Here is a taste of Jacobs’s post:

Emma Green, the fine reporter who wrote the story (though not the headline), asked me to clarify, so here goes:

  1. That the story lede (the first sentence) is accurate will be seen from what follows.
  2. I called the dek (the description below the headline) “misleading,” but that is generous: it’s simply wrong. And Emma Green — who, again, is a superb reporter and rarely makes errors like this — gets it wrong in her story when she writes the source of the dek: “It is also the first time the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must provide money directly to a house of worship.” No: it is not true government “must” provide money to a house of worship or to any other organization. The ruling, rather, is that if a state or local government says that it will provide money to organizations in return for providing certain services — in this case, the maintaining of a playground available to children throughout the community — then it cannot withhold that money from churches simply because they are churches. (The New York Times get it wrong in its headline too, and in the same way: “States Must Aid Some Church Programs, Justices Rule.”) I understand that you can’t squeeze everything into a headline, but the distinction between “governments must give money to churches” and “governments cannot exclude churches qua churches from projects for civic improvement” is not an especially subtle one.
  3. The idea expressed in the hed that this decision “Strikes Down a Major Church-State Barrier” is simply absurd. What is the “barrier” that existed before this ruling and if now gone? What does this ruling do to establish a state church? After all, the ruling applies equally to churches, mosques, synagogues, and atheist community centers: by what torturing of logic could such a ruling be said to establish a state religion? Just as the Civil Rights Act helped to enfranchise people of color without disenfranchising white people, so this ruling excludes prejudice against churches qua churches (in this one minor matter) without infringing on anyone else’s rights.

Read the entire post here.

Thoughts? Jacobs makes sense to me.

On the Ten Commandments Monument in Arkansas

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Here we go again.

A Ten Commandments monument now sits outside the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock.

As some monuments are taken down in the United States, others go up.  If we have learned one thing through the recent and ongoing Confederate monument debates, monuments actually tell us more about the era in which they were erected than they do the event that they celebrate.

With this in mind, the Arkansas monument will be interpreted by future historians as a symbol of the culture wars.  More specifically, it will be interpreted in the context of the Christian Right’s attempt to defend the idea that America is a Christian nation.

Historically, these kinds of monuments–whether they are religious or patriotic in nature–tend to appear in times of great social change.  They are one of our best windows into the fear that members of a majority group feel when newcomers arrive or when they must deal with cultural shifts.  It is not a coincidence, for example, that the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution (and the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy) began erecting monuments all over America around the turn of the 20th-century. This, after all, was a time when the demographic make-up of the United States was changing with the arrival of millions of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.   Politicians exploit these fears in order to win elections.  They then fulfill their campaign promises by building monuments that reflect their anxieties. I guess it makes people feel better.  Apparently a monument now somehow makes Arkansas a Christian state.

Several historians who oppose the removal of certain Confederate monuments have suggested putting the monuments into context so that people can understand the world of white supremacy in which these monuments were erected.  With this in mind, perhaps Arkansas might consider erecting another monument at the Capitol engraved with a verse from the New Testament:

There is not fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.  For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  –1 John 4:18.

Secondarily, we might ask if this new Arkansas monument represents good history.  You can find answers to that question here.

I also recommend Jenna Weissman Joselit’s book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.

ADDENDUM: I just learned, thanks to reader A.J. McDonald Jr. in the comments section, that the monument was destroyed yesterday.

Jefferson on Islam

TJ-Quran-195x300Over at Immanent Frame, the discussion of Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders continues.  In the latest installment, Nadia Marzouki of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes:

Among the scholars who have most inspired my work as a political scientist are multiple historians—whether intellectual, legal, or religious. From James Kloppenberg and Samuel Moyn, to Anver Emon and Patrick Boucheron, scholars of history have offered some of the most rigorous and original contributions to ongoing debates about democracy and religious freedom. History avoids the pitfalls that often characterize other disciplines, especially mine, including an excessive focus on the present and on refined quibbles about methods and positionality, sometimes at the expense of relevance. Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran is one of the most significant illustrations of the need for more history in current academic and political disputes about secularism and citizenship. Hers is not a history of the supposedly linear process of integration of American Muslims. In lieu of the traditional “from migrants to citizens” narrative, Spellberg argues that Muslims were thought of as citizens by the Founding Fathers themselves. The estrangement of Muslims from the American nation and the construction of Muslims as foreigners are products of later developments of the nineteenth century.

In 1765, Thomas Jefferson, then a law student at the College of William and Mary, acquired an English translation of the Qur’an. His fascination with Islamic law and culture led him to defend the rights of Muslims as citizens. Sometimes derided as an “infidel” president, much like Barack Obama three centuries later, he insisted that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom should “comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination,” and argued that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Tracing the genealogy of Jefferson’s understanding of Islam, Spellberg establishes the importance of John Locke’s definition of religious freedom to Jefferson’s own thinking.

Spellberg’s work corrects the mistaken belief that the encounter between Islam and America is something recent, and instead analyzes this encounter not as a shock between two constituted bodies but as an open set of hybrid and ambivalent phenomena. Her goal is not to pacify the history of the relations between Islam and the West, nor does she seek to deny the erratic character, often invisible and numerically limited, of the Islamic presence in Europe and America before the nineteenth century. Rather, an essential implication of Spellberg’s study is the repositioning of Islam within the interiority and intimacy of Western societies. Her book suggests that one cannot think properly about some fundamental ideals of liberal democracy and secular America independently of their relation, if only in theory, with Islam. This epistemological postulate of a constitutively networked and co-extensive relation of Islam and America opens up new perspectives of research, distinct from the traditional theodicy of the progressive acceptance of religious minorities and based on a robust understanding of political liberalism—which is often too promptly reduced to imperialism in a large part of the broad corpus of secularism studies.

Spellberg posits that the encounter between Islam and America is not the outcome of a slow teleology of integration but a point of departure that captures the foundational ambivalence of American liberal-secular democracy.

Read the entire piece here.

Fresno Puts “In God We Trust” in City Council Chamber

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Here is a taste of a piece from the Fresno Bee:

Fresno is the latest – and largest – city in California to give God a prominent place in its City Hall, as the City Council unanimously approved a resolution to add the national motto “In God We Trust” to the wall behind the dais in the council chamber.

The vote was 6-0 Thursday, with Councilmember Oliver Baines absent.

Council members took up a proposal by District 6 Councilman Garry Bredefeld, who said he was inspired by a national movement begun in 2002 by Bakersfield City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan. She appeared before the council to seek its backing for Bredefeld’s measure.

In Fresno County, the cities of Fowler, Huron, Kerman, Orange Cove, Reedley, Sanger and Selma are among more than 130 cities and county governments that have voted to include the motto in their chambers. Nationally, about 650 cities and counties have done the same.

Bredefeld said his proposal “is not about choosing one religion over another; I would never support that.” But, he added, “because there is a vocal minority that wants to take God out of our beliefs, we shouldn’t be silent about that.  For too long, a silent majority has allowed a vocal minority to silence them.”

The overflow crowd of several hundred people jammed into both the lower and upper levels of the council chamber for the debate. Dozens carried signs of support for the proposal by Bredefeld; others wore T-shirts with the motto printed on them. Most of those in the audience favored the motto, but there were some opposed to putting the phrase in the government chamber.

Among those who spoke in support was former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry. He reminded the council how trust in God was a benchmark for American leaders through the nation’s history. “A reliance upon God was in our founding documents,” Autry said, referring to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. “Right now this country is the most divided it’s been in my lifetime. You have an opportunity to make ‘In God We Trust not a divisive thing, but a unifying thing.”

Mayor Alan Autry’s comments play fast and loose with the historical record and do an awful job of using the past to help us move forward in the present.  While the Declaration of Independence does mention God, the United States Constitution does not.  Moreover, the founders rarely spoke with one voice on the place of religion in public life. Finally, do the leaders of Fresno know that the phrase “In God We Trust” emerged out a particular historical context in the Civil War and then again during the Cold War?

Do the people of Fresno really believe that they will bring unity to their city by merely posting the words “In God We Trust” on the wall of the council chamber?  These words are not magic.  They are not a replacement for the hard work of promoting unity amid growing diversity.  Unity demands empathy for others and finding common ground with people who hold different views.  This resolution will no doubt bring even more division to the city.

And do the Christians of Fresno who are in favor of this resolution really believe that somehow their Gospel witness or their work in advancing the Kingdom of God will be more effective now that the phrase “In God We Trust” appears in the council chamber?

It seems that all the time fighting over this resolution would have been better spent doing something that will really bring unity to the city or really advance the cause of Christianity in the city of Fresno.

Trump Throws A Bone to Conservative Evangelicals. Now He Can Move On.

jeffress

Trump and Robert Jeffress in the oval office this week

The evangelical community’s response to Donald Trump’s recent executive order on religious liberty has been largely negative.  As I wrote yesterday: “I don’t think Trump cares about religious liberty.  But he is very good at saying the kinds of things that will keep conservative evangelicals on board the Trump train.”

Let’s review.

First, Trump’s executive order does not repeal the Johnson Amendment. Despite what the POTUS says, the IRS still has the right to remove the tax-exempt status of a church that has a pastor who endorses or opposes a political candidate.

Second, the order does nothing to “exempt some religious organizations” from the Obamacare contraception mandate.

Third, it says nothing about the threats to religious organizations that uphold traditional views on marriage.

As veteran religion reporter Terry Mattingly informs us, the American Civil Liberties Union thought the order was so void of meaning that it felt there was no need to file a lawsuit against it.  Here is a taste of the ACLU press release:

After careful review of the executive order covering the Johnson Amendment signed by President Trump today, the American Civil Liberties Union has determined not to file a lawsuit at this time.

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero issued the following statement:

“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process. The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.

“President Trump’s prior assertion that he wished to ‘totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of ‘fake news.’

As I have been writing here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, there are internal divisions in the Trump White House over religious liberty.  Mike Pence is on the conservative evangelical side.  Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are on the other side. This executive order suggests that the Ivanka/Kushner camp has the upper hand.

Princeton University professor and defender of religious liberty Robert George agrees:

And then there are all of the court evangelicals–the men and women swayed by the power of the presidency.:

Robert Jeffress believes that “religious liberty is now protected, not assaulted.”

And there is more:

Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. told Fox News Radio that the executive order “proves to me President Trump’s a man of his word.”  (Did he read it?).  He also suggests that he can now speak politically on behalf of Liberty University and doesn’t always have to preface his remarks by saying that he is only speaking as an “individual” and not as a representative of the institution he presides over.

There is a very good chance that Trump is duping the likes of Jeffress, White, and Falwell Jr. Trump needed evangelical support to win the election and he will need evangelical support in 2018 and 2020.  This executive order keeps some evangelicals in the fold.

Some might say that the order is symbolic of Trump’s sensitivity to evangelical concerns about religious liberty.  Maybe. But it seems more likely that the order is symbolic of Trump’s political savvy and the willingness of some evangelicals to fall for it as they continue to genuflect on the altar of political power.

Get Up to Speed on the Response to Trump’s Executive Order on Religious Liberty

Trump Exec

On Thursday, Donald Trump signed an executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”  We commented here and here.

Here is what others are saying about the order:

Jaweed Jaleem at the Los Angeles Times on how religious leaders who push politics end up in trouble.

Daniel Silliman offers some historical reflection from the early 20th century.

The Economist says Trump “released a dud.”

Writing at the National Review, David French says the order is “worse than useless.”

Over at The Washington Post Sarah Pulliam Bailey says that the order was a “boost” to white evangelicals.

Caleb Gayle wonders if the order will “embolden progressive Christians.”

The Chicago Tribune calls is an “executive order of religious nothingness.”

Alissa Wilkinson at VOX points out that the order “doesn’t come close to his campaign promises.”

David Harsanyi at The Federalist calls the order “a big disappointment.”

Paul Waldman calls is a “scam.”

The Los Angeles Times says Trump “exaggerates a threat to religious freedom.”

Dahlia Lithwack at Slate describes the executive order as a “nonsolution to a nonproblem–with a dangerous side effect.”

Terry Mattingly says the order produced a “groan on the right” and a “snicker” from the ACLU.

Trump’s Executive Order on Religious Liberty Didn’t Do Much

Here it is:

EXECUTIVE ORDER

PROMOTING FREE SPEECH AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to guide the executive branch in formulating and implementing policies with implications for the religious liberty of persons and organizations in America, and to further compliance with the Constitution and with applicable statutes and Presidential Directives, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1.  Policy.  It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.  The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government.  For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom.  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.  The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.

Sec. 2.  Respecting Religious and Political Speech.  All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.  In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.  As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.

Sec. 3.  Conscience Protections with Respect to Preventive-Care Mandate.  The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate promulgated under section 300gg-13(a)(4) of title 42, United States Code.

Sec. 4.  Religious Liberty Guidance.  In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.

Sec. 5.  Severability.  If any provision of this order, or the application of any provision to any individual or circumstance, is held to be invalid, the remainder of this order and the application of its other provisions to any other individuals or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.   

Sec. 6.  General Provisions.  (a)  Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or 

(ii)  the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b)  This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c)  This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

DONALD J. TRUMP

THE WHITE HOUSE,
    May 4, 2017.

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnut explains why conservative evangelicals should not get too excited.

We predicted the same thing yesterday morning.

This order did not overturn the Johnson Amendment because Trump does not have the power to do this.  Nor did it say anything about exemptions for religious groups “faced with accommodating LGBT antidiscrimination regulations that conflict with faith convictions.”

Frankly, I don’t think Trump really cares about religious liberty.  But he is very good at saying the kinds of things that will keep conservative evangelicals on board the Trump train.

Evangelicals Fighting the Johnson Amendment are Missing the Point

johnson-amendment

It looks like Donald Trump will issue some kind of order later today that attempts to weaken the so-called Johnson Amendment, a provision in the federal tax code that forbids churches and other religious organizations from opposing or supporting political candidates.

Most evangelical pastors do not want to use their pulpits to endorse or oppose candidates, but there are many other conservative evangelicals who believe that the Johnson Amendment violates their freedom of speech and ultimately their religious liberty.

Today’s announcement will be part of a larger presidential statement about religious liberty.  Read more about how it will all go down in this New York Times report.

Here is a taste:

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday will ease restrictions on political activity by churches and charities, White House officials said, but has backed away from a broader religious liberty order that would have allowed faith-based organizations and companies to avoid serving or hiring gay people.

Conservative religious leaders who were fierce supporters of Mr. Trump’s candidacy had pushed the president to provide faith organizations with much more sweeping relief from Obama-era regulations that protect gay men, lesbians and others from discrimination.

Instead, in an executive order, Mr. Trump will offer a vague promise to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.” He will also direct federal agencies to exempt some religious organizations from Affordable Care Act requirements that provide employees with health coverage for contraception.

By making those promises to mark the National Day of Prayer at the White House, Mr. Trump is offering a partial remedy to the anger inside some religious communities toward federal laws they believe require them to put aside beliefs about homosexuality, contraception or other issues.

Read the rest here.

Yesterday we asked whether Mike Pence or Ivanka/Kushner will ultimately win the day on these religious liberty issues.  So far it appears that Trump is trying to walk a tight-rope between Pence’s conservative evangelical views and Ivanka/Kushner’s more inclusive approach.

If The New York Times report is accurate, it looks as if Trump is going to do little more than tell the IRS, without any authority beyond his bully pulpit (no pun intended), to stop investigating the political activism of clergy.  This will not fully satisfy many conservative evangelicals, but I am sure some of them will spin it to their favor simply because they believe Trump has been anointed by God for such a time as this.

As I have now argued multiple times at this blog and elsewhere, clergy who oppose the Johnson Amendment because they want to speak politically from their pulpits seem to be more concerned about freedom of speech than they are about the way this kind of political partisanship undermines their Gospel witness.  Good evangelical pastors should really care less about this whole Johnson Amendment debate.  Why? Because they know that if you mix horse manure and ice cream it doesn’t do much to the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”

When the government starts telling evangelical pastors what they can and cannot preach in terms of theology, Biblical interpretation, or ethics (even sexual ethics), I think we have a problem.  The Johnson Amendment, which has been around since 1954, is not this kind of problem.

Here’s a thought:  Evangelicals might consider the Johnson Amendment as a useful reminder from an unlikely source about the dangers of using the pulpit to preach politics or the spiritual problems brought on by using the sanctuary as a campaign office.  In other words, evangelicals should embrace the Johnson Amendment as an IRS-enforced safeguard to make sure that they don’t fall into sin or idolatry.

Sometimes God watches over his church in interesting ways.  (Isaiah 55:8).