“Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.” (James 3:4)
What direction is the wind blowing in terms of religious life in America? Strong wind gusts are swirling through the country.
In the past few days I read 3 articles on religion in America from the Washington Post. I don’t know if it is usual that so many pieces on religion appear in this paper as I don’t always pay attention to such things, but these three caught my attention, and perhaps are representative of the very strong and opposing currents trending in American religious debate.
In mentioning these three Op-Ed pieces I am not to make a particular point. I use this blog to write about things I am reading or thinking about, not necessarily to express any conclusions about what I read. America is in a period of flux regarding a number of issues related to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: gun control, abortion, gay marriage, and freedom of religion (not to mention its problems with deficits and debt, health care, foreign threats and its ever increasing reliance on the military as its foreign policy department).
The first Op-Ed piece, Why the ‘Ground Zero’ Cross Should Remain by Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark (Published: April 4, 2013), agrees with a court decision that says the “Ground Zero Cross” will remain a part of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum despite the fact that a group of atheists filed a complaint in court claiming “that the mere ‘existence of the cross’ is causing them ‘depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish.’” The steel beams were part of the 9/11 debris –they emerged out of the inferno and wreckage as a cross (an insurance industry “act of God”) rather than being built later from pieces of the wreckage. The fact that Christians may see it as a religious sign does not change that it is a piece of history from 9/11. Orthodox Christians at least have seen the sign of the cross in many events reported in the Old Testament (Moses holding out his arms giving victory to the Israelites for example). Jews and others may not see Christ’s cross prefigured in these same biblical events, but Christians have for nearly 2000 years. It is standard fair for believers of any faith to see the hand of God where non-believers may see only wreckage.
“There is nothing about the existence of the cross, for one, or its inclusion in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum that violates the Constitution. First, legally, the two steel beams in the shape of a cross are a historic artifact of 9/11, not a man-made religious symbol, despite any religious significance it took on. Second, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Constitution’s ‘goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.’
The heroes of 9/11 and the families of the fallen to whom this cross – this symbol of hope – has meant so much deserve to have this artifact from the wreckage of 9/11 displayed in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. They have gone through so much hurt and pain; they do not need to be dragged through a tenuous court battle. The cross should remain.”
Whatever may be said about a separation between church and state which prohibits the government from establishing a state church, the Constitution does not forbid the practice of religious beliefs nor does it ban religion in public discourse or the public domain. It is good, reasonable and important for us to understand what factors shape our moral values in public discourse and debate.
The second Op-Ed piece that caught my attention in some ways is the polar opposite of the article above. Rev. Barry W. Lynn’s What part of ‘no law respecting an establishment of religion’ does North Carolina not understand? (Published: April 4) looks at an ongoing effort in North Carolina by a few politicians to assert state rights regarding religion that would trump the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment. The North Carolina “House Joint Resolution 494, known was the ‘Rowan County Defense of Religion Act,’ makes the claim that ‘each state is sovereign and may independently determine how the state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.’”
In some ways this is simply part of the endless struggle in America between state’s rights and the rights of the federal government. Lynn is concerned that the North Carolina resolution is simply an attempt to circumvent the First Amendment and make it possible for religions to gain control of government at the state level. The bill declares: “the North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
James Madison, considered by many to be the architect of the proper relationship between church and state in the American democracy, was very concerned that the majority would always be tempted to impose their religious beliefs on the minority and he believed there needed to be a separation between church and state to protect the rights of all. His efforts have led at times to the majority feeling frustrated and excluded from decisions as they must always take into account minority views. I think that frustration is what causes these particular North Carolina legislators from trying to pass this resolution – they are trying to find the way for the majority’s beliefs also to be protected. Lynne in his article surmises that the courts will continue to defend the views of the minority which seems to be the intent of the constitution and its amendments. The importance of the individual’s conscience is the segue into the last article I will mention.
In Still hoping for change on religious freedom Mary Ann Glendon (Published: April 7) deals with federal legislation “that would force virtually all employers nationwide—including religious charities, schools, and hospitals—to facilitate and fund insurance coverage of sterilization, contraception, and drugs that can cause abortions” even against the consciences and religious beliefs of individuals. As Glendon argues, “It is unconscionable for the federal government to force religious people to check their deeply held beliefs at the door as they enter the world of commerce. These days, our business sector needs to be informed by more moral reflection, not less.”
Religion and morality are not merely individualistically held beliefs but are part of the shared space and dialogue which creates culture. America wrestles constantly with balancing individual rights/individualism with the common welfare. The state is banned from imposing religious beliefs on us but also from interfering in the religious beliefs of individuals and different religions. Churches are prevented from making their religious beliefs required of all citizens but also are protected from state interference in practicing the dictates of their religion. In America with its matrix of religious beliefs, the state is faced with the task of protecting the religious rights of all of its citizens by balancing the demands of the constitution for religious freedom while protecting the consciences of individuals.
In my experience as a member of a minority religion – Orthodox Christian: neither Protestant nor Catholic nor Jewish but a fourth tradition – I have benefited from being allowed to pursue my religious interests and beliefs in our country. I appreciate the rights which minorities are afforded in terms of religious faith and practice.
Life, as Orthodox hymns tell it, surges with the storms of temptations. The winds of controversy blow across the American religious scene, and it takes an active and aware public to defend religious liberties because they benefit our people and our nation.
“… and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:25)