Tag Archives: separation of church and state

Ten Commandments on the Courthouse Lawn?

At the end of a long weekend celebrating the freedoms of my country, I logged on to Facebook to find that one of my friends had shared a post from the page of Micheal Cochrane, the prosecuting attorney of Wyoming County, West Virginia.  On a page available to the public, Cochrane’s post solicited comments from his friends in preparation for his response to reporters about the placement of a monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the county courthouse.

After national media attention resulted from the documentary Oxyana, which chronicled prescription addiction in the area, local church and business leaders erected the monument in what they say is not an attempt to force religion on anyone but rather to inspire people and combat the drug problem.  County officials and residents are understandably frustrated with the rising crime rate resulting from prescription drug abuse—a complex issue for which I share their concern, given that I’ve lost one brother to addiction and am likely to lose another.

I grew up in Oceana, the site of the film, so I was not surprised to see that the overwhelming majority of comments favored leaving the monument on the courthouse grounds.  What did surprise me was that a lawyer would solicit commentary on Facebook before crafting a response to the media—until I learned that he was appointed to office in March after the previous prosecuting attorney accepted a job in state government.  So Cochrane must be elected to keep the job he has sought.

Among the comments that have been posted are several by staff members who work in the prosecutor’s office.  One poster believed the monument should remain but advised his friend Cochrane that the law was not on his side and that he was fighting a losing battle.  At the time I read the comments, fewer than five advocated the separation of church and state and the removal of the monument.

Clearly, the legal argument is not one that proponents of the monument are apt to hear, though these are the same people who celebrated joyously on July 4th the freedoms no Christian has ever had to question for the past 200 years.

And so, as a fellow Christian who believes fervently in the right of all people to religious freedom, I would posit to these people that the faith we share offers some valid reasons for the removal of the monument.

In the time of Moses, the commandments were preserved in a temple, not in the seat of government.  And from the beginning of recorded history, forcing people to accept a faith has never resulted in a religion that endures.  It merely ensures that when power changes hands, as it always does eventually, that the people of our faith will be denied the freedoms we have denied to others.  If my descendants live in a country where Christians are a minority, I want them to be able to practice their faith without repercussions.  Finding a way to coexist peacefully is the only way to safeguard the future of the religious freedom on which this nation was founded.

Insisting that the commandments be posted on government property is also contrary to the teachings of the Christ from whom we Christians take our name.  Even Jesus advocated separation of church and state, telling citizens that they should render to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what was God’s.  And, most importantly, Jesus never forced anyone to accept the Good News he shared.  Though thousands listened to his sermons and witnessed the miracles he performed, he never begged or forced anyone to believe he spoke truth.  Many are the stories of people he sadly watched as they walked away from what he offered.

If we believe that God’s grace is sufficient, then we must also believe that no monument made with human hands is necessary to Christ’s message.  In fact, when the apostles proposed building a temple in his honor, he quickly let them know they were heading in the wrong direction.

Growing up in Wyoming County, I learned about government in school and God in church.  My youth leader was also a teacher at the school, but she didn’t have to post the Ten Commandments in her classroom or preach to her students for people to see Christ in her life.  I find myself wondering how that changed in a town that has no hint of a non-Christian religion within its borders.

Erecting such a monument isn’t necessary and probably does the Gospel more harm than good.  Such actions make Christians appear desperately afraid that the message of Grace isn’t sufficient.  And what ultimately draws people to any faith is its ability to help us find joy and meaning in our lives.

So tell me your stories of a faith that needs no force, no fear, no monuments.

Believe in Separation of Church and State?

Pentecost

Peeping through the cracks between the boards of the shed in our back yard, my brothers and I watched curiously as the small crowd gathered at our neighbors’ house.  It was Sunday evening, and it wouldn’t be long before our mother called us in for baths.

We had recently moved into the neighborhood, and we quickly discovered that one of the families next door had church services at their house where they spoke in tongues and handled poisonous snakes to demonstrate their faith.  Even in the deepest heart of the Bible Belt, this family was an oddity.

We couldn’t see inside the house once they closed the door, and our mom had forbidden us to go near the fence on that side of the yard when the services began.  Terrified of snakes, we obeyed this rule without Mom’s usual threat of telling our dad when we disobeyed.  And so we retreated to the shed on the other side of the yard, laughing and mimicking their moans, their hallelujahs, and the jerking movements of their limbs we had once glimpsed when they left the door open.

I think of this family every year on Pentecost Sunday, and while the church of my childhood didn’t speak in tongues or handle snakes, there was plenty of shouting.  The focus of that service was always on bringing sinners to repentance, so the pastor emphasized the violent wind and the tongues of fire, culminating in the threat of the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood.

I have since learned the history of Pentecost—that it wasn’t first a Christian observance but a Jewish one.  The church I attend now calls that Pentecost of the New Testament “the birthday of the Church.”   The church is decorated with long fire-colored streamers that hang from the wooden rafters, a red scarf is draped around the cross, and the walls beneath the cross are decorated with red geraniums.  The congregants dress in red and sing songs, and there is no sermon on Pentecost Sunday.

The people in the pews are celebrating a birthday, and I go through the motions of joining them.  But my own feelings about Pentecost were shaped long ago in a backyard that exists now only in my memory.  And they were reinforced by a pastor who jumped up and down and waved his arm in the motion of an executioner’s scythe.

While my own story may be at the utmost fringes of odd, I know from the stories others have told me that many of us struggle to deal with the scars left by those who taught us the religion of our parents.  And when we see leaders in our country insisting that religion be brought into the arena of government, these are the people we see in our mind’s eye.

This, I believe, is why the recent Pew Forum shows that the number of people who do not identify themselves with any religious group is steadily rising.  And it’s why what’s happening in politics scares the hell out of me and a lot of other people.  There is something different about conservative church leaders than the leaders in the churches of my youth.

My science classes taught evolution; my church taught the Creation story.  Nobody questioned that it should be otherwise.  And while my views on faith have changed a lot since those days, I grew up believing that creation and evolution were compatible—that God was smart enough and big enough to create creatures who could change and evolve.  Both my English teachers and my church leaders saw the seven days as symbolic of human understanding about time—something we humans could grasp when we couldn’t wrap our minds around the concept time immemorial.

And while we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day, I don’t remember ever being told by a teacher to bow my head in prayer.  My youth leader taught at my high school, and while she allowed those of us who wanted to do so to have Bible study in her room at lunch, she did not use her social studies classroom to proselytize.  In fact, none of our social studies teachers ever mentioned God except in the factual study of the religions of the societies we studied.

The only exception that stands out in my memory was the opening prayer and the benediction at graduations.  This ritual rotated among the pastors in the town, and all the religions in the town were Protestant, so no one questioned the tradition.  But the prayer was always for the graduates to be safe and to find their purpose in life, not for them repent and find salvation.

Even the most extreme evangelicals I knew in my childhood honored the separation of church and state.  I wonder now how the boundaries have become so blurred.  Like those disciples on Pentecost, we all seem to be speaking different languages.  But unlike those disciples, we don’t seem to be hearing and understanding each other.

I believe it is possible—and far more productive—for individuals to allow their beliefs to inform their service to country without having to shout about them in the public arena.  Even the most fervent evangelicals of my childhood seemed to believe that, and I’m thankful to them for giving me that gift.

So can we make it work?  Let us tell our stories, in all our different tongues, until the world begins to hear and understand.

How Did Your Pastors Vote?

How did my pastors vote? I think I know, but I’m not sure. Neither of them ever stood in the pulpit and named a candidate. Nor did they talk about the hot-button issues to make it abundantly clear which candidate would get their votes. But they did encourage us to vote—to vote our conscience. They did not expect us to follow their lead blindly, and they did not make us feel that we were less Christian if we voted a certain way. Instead, they urged us to look through the lens of our faith and think carefully about how to cast our vote.

So this morning, the co-pastor who delivered the sermon began by describing her experience at the polls, painting a vivid picture of the pleasure she took in reviewing the sample ballot one last time at breakfast, waiting in line for a voting machine, choosing each candidate and issue, and carrying the little plastic card to the official. Though she talked about the exhaustion of being bombarded with mailings from both sides, she was full of joy as she talked about the privilege of living in a country where our votes really do count, even when the candidate we want doesn’t win.

Her story was a beautiful introduction to the biblical text for today—not one she chose but one that was chosen by several denominations as a Common Lectionary years in advance. But Psalm 146 was the perfect song for a less than perfect election season, especially verses 3-4: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” She reminded us that the God we serve is bigger than “the princes of Congress,” bigger than party, bigger than anything we can imagine for ourselves.

Choosing pastors like her and her husband, the co-pastor, is not the path this church has always chosen. Before the congregation called these pastors (and before I moved to the area), the church fought hard and bitterly about the very issues our country debated in this election, as did many churches in the denomination. But this church split down the middle, and the former pastor left, taking many life-long members with him. The results were disastrous for both sides. I had a friend who left with the pastor, and that church dissolved after only a year, leaving the members to find other churches or to reject organized religion altogether. The congregation that remained fared better, but the wounds took years to heal and, for a while, God’s mission was slowed down by the limping, bleeding congregants who held on for the lengthy process of finding new pastors willing to take on the challenge of bringing people back together for God’s common good.

So these two pastors know more than most what happens when two sides become bitter and unable to hear each other. And as I sat in the presence of this very inspiring minister this morning, I looked around at the faces in the congregation and hoped that somehow our president and the princes of Congress can find it in them to do what our co-pastors have done—to bring us together for a noble cause that is bigger than princes, bigger than party, bigger than liberals or conservatives—a country that still strives to be one nation indivisible in spite of our differences.

And what about me? I’m not a prince, nor a senator, nor a congressman, nor would I want to be. But I am a citizen, and I owe it to my country not to gloat that the candidate I wanted has won this time, as I’ve heard so many liberal pundits do in the last few days. I don’t have to give up my principles. But I do have to understand that I don’t have all the answers and that my side hasn’t been able to solve our nation’s problems any more than my opponents’ side did in the eight years before President Obama was elected. And that isn’t just because of the opposition. The problems we face wouldn’t loom large if there were obvious and simple solutions.

But I can’t expect our leaders to do what I am unwilling to try to do myself. I am a citizen. And more than that, I am a child of God. And so are we all.