Mayor Pete Shows-Up at Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School Class

Carter and Pete

Carter invited Buttigieg to read scripture, but so far I have not seen anything on the what specific passage he asked the South Bend mayor to read.

Buttigieg showed-up unannounced.  Carter, perhaps in an attempt to avoid playing favorites, told the members of the class that Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, both Democratic presidential candidates, have also visited his class.

Read all about it here.

Frankly, I am not a fan of this.  As I have said multiple times at this blog in the context of conservative evangelical political activity, I don’t like bringing politics into the church in this way.  Call me a skeptic, but this move by Buttigieg looks like an attempt to win the support of progressive Christians.

Even White Evangelicals Oppose Trump’s Bible-Signing

Trump BIbles

Check out journalist Joanna Piacenza piece at Morning Consult.  According to a Morning Consult poll, most white evangelicals think that Trump’s signing of Bibles at an Alabama Baptist church earlier this month was “inappropriate.”  U.S. adults, Republicans, Christians, white Catholics, and white mainline Protestants also think Trump’s signing of Bibles was “inappropriate.” The only identity group that thinks the president’s signing of Bible is appropriate are Trump voters, but only by a 43% to 42% margin.

Read the piece here.  I was happy to help Piacenza with her story.

How Do We “Render Unto Caesar” in a Democracy?

CaesarThe following exchange takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22: 16-22.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.[b] 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.[c] 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Several Trump evangelicals are using this verse to justify their support for the POTUS.

Over at the Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz asks a question about coins:

So how might we hear Matthew 22:21 differently if we’re looking at the metallic relief of a long-dead president who held limited power for a relatively short period of time, rather than that of a living emperor with the hubris to believe himself a figure of unimpeachable power?

Great question.

Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, adds:

Perhaps we’d then hear “render unto Caesar” as a reminder that, if American Christians owe limited allegiance to any secular authority, they owe it to no one person, but to the American people, who govern themselves through elected representatives sworn to protect the Constitution. The same Constitution that keeps even presidents from benefiting financially from their position, from obstructing the work of those who investigate lawbreaking, or from inventing fake national emergencies in order to subvert the work of those who make laws.

So render to God what is God’s: your image-bearing self commanded to love other image-bearers. And render to Trump what is Trump’s: your responsibilities as an American citizen to dissent from unwise and unjust uses of American power and to hold American demagogues accountable for their attempts to play Caesar.

Read Gehrz’s entire piece here.  It deserves a wide readership, especially for his thoughts on court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s use of this verse.

The Author’s Corner with Steven Green

the third disestablishment

Steven Green is the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of History and Religious Studies at Williamette University. This interview is based on his new book, The Third Disestablishment: Church, State, and American Culture, 1940-1975 (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Third Disestablishment?

SG: Many things led me to write The Third Disestablishment.  I have written extensively about the ongoing dynamic of religious disestablishment in the 18th and 19th centuries.  My thesis has been (and continues to be) that there were various levels of disestablishment — political, institutional, legal, cultural — and that they occurred in incremental steps and at different times.  In essence, disestablishment was not perfected with the enactment of the 1st Amendment and, quite clearly, there was never a consensus on what it meant.  The Third Disestablishment brings this narrative forward to the mid-20th century where the Supreme Court formally embraced separation of church and state as the meaning of the Establishment Clause.  The book examines the cultural forces behind this embrace.  I felt that this was a story that had not been fully told before.

I also wrote the book in order to explore the background of the ongoing controversy over whether separation of church and state is/was the correct model.  The book also seeks to address why separationism arose, then fell into disfavor, at least as a legal principle.   Finally, on a personal level, in my earlier career as a 1st Amendment lawyer, I encountered several of the figures and organizations discussed in the book, though in their much later years.  This motivated me to examine the initial dynamic that led them to become involved in this issue.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Third Disestablishment?

SG: The book responds to more recent interpretations that maintain that separation of church and state became a legal and popular construct in mid-century due chiefly to residual Protestant suspicions of Catholicism.  It also maintains that even in its heyday, church-state separation was a contestable and indeterminate concept, and that its demise both legally and culturally began much earlier than has otherwise been maintained.

JF: Why do we need to read The Third Disestablishment?

SG: While numerous books have been written on the development of church and state, this book provides a fresh perspective by interweaving the cultural and legal developments of the period into  comprehensive narrative.  It examines the cultural backdrop to the Court’s adoption of its modern church-state jurisprudence.  It explores the roles of leading figures of the time, including Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, Paul Blanshard, Cardinal Francis Spellman, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, John F. Kennedy, and several consequential Supreme Court justices.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SG: I have been interested in the interaction between religion and politics/law in US history since undergraduate school.  I made the decision to enter a history PhD program after practicing law for 4 years.   Since then, I have had an amazing career that has allowed me to do legal advocacy, teaching, and scholarship in the area of religion, law, politics and history. 

JF: What is your next project?

SG: I am writing a book for Cornell University Press in its religion in public life series on–you guessed it–the development of church-state separation in American history.

JF: Thanks, Steven!

Is the Push for Public School Bible Courses an Excuse to Spread the Gospel?

Bible in Schools

University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at USA Today:

The Supreme Court barred devotional Bible reading and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in 1963. But the ruling also said courses about the Bible were permissible, so long as they were “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”  

Evangelical Christians promptly began a full-court press for Bible classes, which were hardly objective or secular. As I noted in my 2002 book, “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” a Florida teacher of “Bible history” said his class had helped recruit more than 100 new members into an after-school “Youth for Christ” course. And in South Carolina, a graduate of her own school’s “Bible survey” said the course had persuaded her to become a missionary. “I want everybody to have what I have,” she told her teacher, “And I’d like to spend my life sharing it with them.”

Both of these accounts appeared in the evangelical press, which didn’t disguise the purpose of the Bible classes: to spread the Christian Gospel. And that seems to be the same goal behind a recent round of state legislative proposals to enhance “Bible literacy” in our public schools.

Read the rest here.

I agree with Zimmerman.  I see no other reason why evangelicals, and mostly evangelicals, are pushing for these Bible classes.  At the heart of all of this is the longstanding evangelical idea that God does not need human agents to spread his message in the Bible.  Just give kids a Bible and “let the Bible do its work.”  In other words, if kids are exposed to the Bible, God will miraculously illuminate the text and some will embrace its life-changing and live-saving message.  This is Evangelicalism 101.  And it has a long history.

For example, the American Bible Society regularly described its mission in terms of the “Bible doing its work” without a teacher or preacher.  Here is a passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015):

The ABS believed that the Bible had the spiritual power to send people…on an entirely new trajectory of life….The agents working on behalf of the Bible Cause were appointed to deliver the word of God wherever it was needed, but they also believed that the Bible was a supernatural book that could lead people to salvation without the aid of a preacher or teacher….The Bible, without any commentary, could bring people into the Kingdom of God, defeat a growing Catholic menace, and advance the cause of Protestantism in America.  Though ABS agents often took opportunities to preach and teach, most of the time they just dropped off a copy of the Bible at a house, on a train or ship, or to someone they met on the road–and let the Spirit do the rest….Bible Cause Cover

ABS publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effects the book had on sinners and potential converts.  For example, as he prepared to send his son off to college a Christian father worried that the young scholar would lose his faith during the course of the experience.  So he purchased an “elegant copy” of the Bible and, without his son’s knowledge, placed it at the bottom of the trunk.  Shortly after the son’s arrival at college the father’s worst fears were realized.  “The restraints of a pious education were soon broken off,” and the young man  “proceeded from speculation to doubts, and from doubts to denial of the reality of religion.”  One day, while “rummaging through his trunk ,” he found the “sacred deposit” that his father had placed there.  In a spirit of indignation, the young man decided that he would use the Bible to clean his razor after his daily shave.  Each day, he used the blade to tear a leaf or two out of the “Holy Book” until half of the volume was destroyed.  But one morning, as he was “committing this outrage”  to the text, several verses met his eye and struck him “like a barbed arrow to his heart.”  These verses were like a “sermon” to him, awakening him to the wrath of God and leading him to the “foot of the cross.”  There was no need to provide rational answers to the young man’s skepticism–the “Sacred Volume” had “done its work.”  It has led him “to repose on the mercy of God, which is sufficient for the chief of sinners….”

The managers and agents of the ABS lived in an enchanted world where books in barns could convict men of sin and those who burned sacred scriptures suffered negative consequences.  This was  a world in which men and women could pick up a copy of the Bible on a ship or a railcar and immediately turn to a verse of passage that spoke to a specific need.  Though there were some who probably believed that the Bible was a kind of talisman or amulet, most ABS agents believed that the Bible’s apparent magical powers could be easily explained by an appeal to the third person of the Trinity–the Holy Spirit.  When those in charge of the ABS talked about the Bible “doing its work,” what they were really saying was the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible in such a way that touched the hearts of those who encountered it and its message.  Though the influence of the Spirit’s work in shedding light on the message of the Bible could come quickly and abruptly, as in the case of an evangelical revival, it usually had a “slow, silent, effective influence” on the reader.  This was the same kind of spiritual power that “moved the deep tides of the ocrans and holds and guides the planets in their spheres.”  If the ABS could just get the pure word of God, without note or comment, in the hands of every person in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

Today the final sentences in the paragraph above could be rewritten this way:  “If the Christian Right could get the pure word of God, even without spiritual or proselytizing teachers, in every school in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

Benjamin Vaughan to Thomas Jefferson on Days of Thanksgiving

Vaughan

Benjamin Vaughan

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell introduces us to Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835), a British radical politician who wrote to Thomas Jefferson about religion in 1801.

Here is a taste of Vaughan’s March 15, 1801 letter to the new President of the United States:

I trust that your administration will have few difficulties in these parts, provided it steers clear of religion. You are too wise & just to think of any official attacks upon religion, & too sincere to make any affected overtures in favor of it. You know where you are thought to be in this respect; & there it may be wise to stand.—

If a ruler however at times acts with a view to accommodate himself to the feelings, in which many of the citizens for whom he takes thought, participate; this can neither be considered as a violation of truth or of dignity; and is not likely to prove unacceptable, if done avowedly with this view.—

For example, it is not in, & is perhaps without the constitution, to recommend fasts & thanksgivings from the federal chair, at the seasons respectively when the New Englanders look for those things; & therefore you will not think it perhaps needful for you to meddle with such matters. But, if you did, this example will serve my purpose. You may then I presume safely & acceptably interfere with a view to name a time, when a large proportion of your constituents may be enabled to do the thing in question consentingly & cotemporarily. You certainly may make yourself in this an organ of the general convenience, without departing from any of your own principles; especially as you will take due care to use decorous language, should the occasion be used. 

Read the rest of the letter, and Bell’s commentary, here.

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

ab855-thomas-jefferson

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?

Pew

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

president-obama-prayer-circle (1)

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.

Jay_Sekulow_Speaking_at_CPAC_2012,_UNEDITED._(6854519337)

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

Arkansas

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.