Why the “wall of separation” must be porous

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Ruling on appeal of a preliminary injunction, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has–in a divided decision–ruled that a for-profit business may absorb the religious beliefs of its owner. This carves out space for Hobby Lobby, Inc. to continue its non-compliance with provisions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) known as the contraception mandate without the threat of daily fines of $1 million. While it is a procedural ruling, the notion that a for-profit company can “absorb” the religious beliefs will require clarification from the court and will be significant for future decisions.

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Regardless of what you think about this decision, it does illustrate a deeper issue: religion and society cannot be separated by a wall that is not somehow porous. We can disagree with how porous the wall ought to be, but a complete separation of the two tends to favor tyranny rather than freedom.

Why? It’s imperative to acknowledge that there are things that matter more deeply than the way we order and govern our life together as a nation. In a highly pluralistic society, its imperative to recognize that “secular reason” cannot be the sole arbiter of our decisions without doing violence to the large number of people who acknowledge an authority deeper than that of the state. As a result, it is important to carve out exceptions for religious people and religious organizations and corporations as the court has intimated it may do in the case of Hobby Lobby.

The curious case of the praying valedictorian

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My Facebook feed has recently started to light up with editorial responses to the young man in South Carolina who, as valedictorian of his graduating class, set his prepared remarks aside and elected to recite the Lord’s Prayer in violation of the school district’s prohibition of religious observance.

Here’s the video.

Your response to this act of defiance will likely differ based on your religious convictions, your political persuasion, and where you live in the country. Clearly those in the audience at the commencement exercise appreciated the gesture. From the video, it’s hard to tell what the faculty are thinking. Plausibly, “oh crap” is one possibility.

The decision to do this raises many questions…

  • About the student: is he brave or stupid? Heroic or reckless?
  • About the audience: how would they have responded to a muslim student doing something similar? Is applause a sign of belligerence rather than the appropriate reaction to the worship of God?
  • About us: how is our response conditioned by our prejudice? Against Southerners? Against Christians? Against fundamentalists?
  • About the act itself: is it really an exercise more of devotion to our Constitution and our conception of freedom in a liberal democracy than it is one of devotion to God? How does this relate to the biblical admonition to honor the civil magistrate?

This young man, I’m sure, intended that his act be one of positive witness to our Lord. I hope that in the lives of many it will be received as just that and that perhaps some will incline themselves to God in a new way. However, many will see this as something akin to an act of defiance by a dwindling majority.

It may be both.

What do you think?

If you’re a Christian, don’t be stupid

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People can be stupid. Christians, unfortunately, are no different. Inside Higher Ed highlights a controversy embroiling Florida Atlantic University and centering around student reactions to the actions of a Deandre Poole, himself a Christian and a professor.

Here’s what happened according to the website:

The course at Florida Atlantic University was in intercultural communications, and the exercise involve[d] having students write “Jesus” on a piece of paper, and then asking them to step on it. When they hesitate, the instructor has an opening to discuss symbols and their meaning.

Are you following this? The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the very letters J-E-S-U-S convey meaning and that in a culture influenced by Christianity, many will have some degree of moral dilemma in being told to step on a sheet of paper containing those letters. 

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Dr. Deandre Poole

There are other symbols that could have been used–flags, crosses, a Bible, etc. And the point of the exercise it to make students uncomfortable, good lessons often do. Yet, responses to the event by parties ranging from a student in the class, to politicians, and also to the university administration can really only be classified as stupid. Let me rephrase: responses have been ill-conceived and in some cases are inconsistent with the very values espoused. “This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings. Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”

Here’s a list:

  • The belligerent student. We don’t know if this student is a Christian or not. For the sake of argument, and because many will assume he is, let’s assume it to. According to reports here’s the student’s response:

After class, the student came up to him [Poole], and made that statement [“how dare you disrespect someone’s religion] again, this time hitting his balled fist into his other hand and saying that “he wanted to hit me.” While the student did not do so, Poole said he was alarmed and notified campus security and filed a report on the student.

  • The racists. Apparently this Christian professor has received death threats, some of which make reference to lynching (which makes me nauseated even to type):

He said he has received hate mail and death threats, some of them coming in forms particularly hurtful to an African American. “One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree,” he said.

  • The university. Get a spine already.

A statement released Sunday by the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida said that the university erred in banning a classroom practice because some had been offended.

This unhappy episode suggests, once again, that not only is our society dysfunctional in communicating across disagreements but also that many of our cultural institutions seem unable or unwilling to make decisions or support faculty who are the subject of public disagreement or uninformed outrage.

Our culture is infantile. We stamp our feet. We scream our disagreement. And what’s sad is that often it is people who claim the name of Christ who are the worst–not always to be sure. However, in a culture that is moving beyond its Christendom moorings, we should be sure that when the offensive person or cause is related to Christianity, it is natural that our culture will make that connection an emphasis in describing the event or person.

St. Peter provides wise counsel for Christians in our current moment when he writes,

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3.16

That defense, I am sure, did not involve fists or shouts.

Four ways churches manage the tension of gospel and culture

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The church lives in tension

Evangelicals are learning to face some new realities about the gospel’s encounter with contemporary culture. The church exists for the purpose of proclaiming the truth of the Christian gospel–that reconciliation with God is possible through Christ.

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The church’s core commitments

As God’s missional community, we are to embody that truth as we pursue the various callings God has given to us (father, mother, husband, wife, etc).

We are also to verbally communicate that message as God gives us opportunity. We do so through organic, authentic, respectful conversation.

As a result we live with a tension in deciding which parts of our message and faith are culturally-conditioned or culturally-determined.

Four major ways to handle the tension

This tension between message (gospel) and means (practice) has been addressed in at least four ways by the contemporary church.

  1. Change neither the means of communication nor the message itself. This is the traditional church that continues to speak and act as if it was still 1950. A traditional gospel is preached using traditional religious language, and in the context of a program driven church with a very traditional worship service.
  2. Change the means of communication, but not the message itself. This group includes many new reformed churches associated with the Acts29 network, a fewer number of emergent/ing communities, and generally those who are associated in some way, shape, or form with the center-right constituency of the missional movement. I’d even include a church like Redeemer New York (and its daughter churches) that assume a non- or post-Christian audience. The essential meaning of the gospel message remains consistent with the church’s traditional formulations. The language is updated and much insider language is jettisoned in favor of verbal symbols that connect with contemporary hearers. Context is king and so some of these churches embrace older, more liturgical forms of worship and some embrace what could be called “contemporary” Christian music (contemporary having a range of meanings each specific to the decade in which the preponderance of the congregation became believers).
  3. Change both the means of communication, and also the message itself. I’d include in this grouping the majority of the emergent/emerging conversation. It’s clear to me now that classical theism doesn’t describe the views of many of the proponents of emergent/ing. Many would object to (or at least downplay) doctrines like: God’s impassibility, the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement, and God’s foreknowledge and/or foreordination of that which is to come. Since these concepts (often thought to be cultural accretions owing the Greco-Roman origin of the early Christian church) seem to many emergent/ing folk to be insufficient to addressing our contemporary world they are essentially jettisoned. As with group number two, these folk work hard to create worship experiences that are participatory, aesthetically rich, and transformative.
  4. Change the message, but not the means of communication. You might be tempted to think that this should be an empty category. It’s not. Most of the mainline churches have essentially revised the gospel message to be accessible to their conception of what (post)modern people want. However, few have changed the form of their worship beyond including ethnically diverse hymns in their hymnbooks and editing out masculine language.

 Faithfulness requires innovation in practice

These are the four options most Christian churches pursue. It is my belief that the path of Christian faithfulness requires innovation in almost every area of the church’s life. My preferred means of innovation is breathing new life and forms into classical Christian worship as it existed prior to the Great Schism of AD 1054.

Faithfulness sometimes requires restraint 

Any innovation must be severely restrained (even chastened) in terms of the way in which the church talks about God and the gospel. Our talk about God does not exist in a cultural vacuum–it is anchored to and flows from God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus, in the Word of God written, and in the church’s theological reflection on these over time. This is a limiting factor on the extent to which we can speculatively formulate notions of God and gospel that are “acceptable” or “palatable” to our present cultural moment.

Those are my thoughts–what are yours?

What our reaction to the Arab protests tells us about ourselves

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Many of us are surprised by the vitriolic response by some Muslims to viewing The Innocence of Muslims, a film that appears to be so facile that many Westerners have difficulty taking it seriously. Circulation of the video in the Arab world has caused (with a little help from some bad actors aiming to use the unrest to further their own ends) protests in several countries. In Libya, the unrest allowed an insurgent group to launch an attack on the U.S. mission there, which resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and several other foreign service personnel.

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What’s the big deal? We might be tempted to consider this whole event as analogous to fundamentalist Christians rioting on the streets of London after the release of a movie like, say, The Life of Brian. Released in 1979, the movie (written and performed by Monty Python) chronicled the life of one Brian Cohen. Brian was born on the original Christmas Day, literally in the next stable to Jesus. He proceeds to spend the rest of his life being mistaken for the Christ–even as he is crucified.

Since I was four at the time of the film’s release, I have no firsthand recollection of responses to it’s release thirty-three years ago. However, some very brief research (via the internet) shows that responses were quite critical, especially by the religious establishment. In fact, the English town of Torbay only dropped it’s ban on showing the movie in 2008! Several countries (including Norway) banned the movie totally. To my knowledge, there were no violent protests, although the movie was picketed by Rabbis and Nuns when it was screened in London.

Our confused reaction to the Arab protests tells us a great deal about ourselves. More than anything else, our reaction shows how profoundly unfamiliar we are with anything other than secular societies.

“The secular” is a space in society where religious considerations are not permitted to be taken into account. In this realm or sphere we believe that secular reason becomes a common language (or authority) to which we can commonly appeal in making decisions.

Those of us living in the United States intuitively know, for example, that it is somehow not permissible to apply religious or theological litmus tests to creative works, government policy, or business practices.

Dan Cathy’s contention that gay marriage is inappropriate and his endorsement of tradition heterosexual marriage resulted in a lot of negative publicity and for his company, Chick-fil-A.

In discussing abortion in the 2008 election cycle President Obama made it clear that religious arguments for the sanctity of human life (even human life in utero) ought not to be considered in deciding policy.

No less a figure than Salman Rushdie has recently commented that in secular civil society no belief or tenet is off-limits to art on NPR.

So, art is created and disseminated in the realm of the secular as is policy. Business is conducted in the realm of the secular. To the extent that religious arguments or beliefs influence decisions it is not because those arguments (or considerations) are authoritative in themselves. Instead their influence is utilitarian. For example, when Howard Schultz decided to back out of appearing at Willow Creek’s leadership conference several years ago it was a utilitarian decision. The religious argument was: evangelical Christians discriminate against gays and lesbians therefore evangelical Christianity is, at best, discriminatory and, at worst, a hate group.

It’s likely that had Schultz thought this in the first instance, he would not have accepted the invitation. Instead, his decision to back out appealed to secular reason in the form of making a “business decision” because pressure from GLBT groups could have had an adverse effect on the Starbucks brand. This is not an explicitly theological rationale, it is a utilitarian rationale.

We are profoundly familiar with religious and theological considerations being marginalized in order for our highly pluralistic, capitalist society to function. Our secularism is enshrined in our First Amendment. Free speech can only exist where there is (intellectual) space in which that speech can take place–the secular. Americans find it intuitively ridiculous that, say, LifeWay Christian Stores should refuse to carry a book because the word “vagina” is printed therein. Why? Because we believe that the vast majority of our existence takes place in secular space, a marketplace of ideas and opinion with only secular reason as an arbiter of rival claims.

Our secularism does not permit us to conceive of a society in which all intellectual space is sacred. Or perhaps, more accurately, we have a hard time conceiving of a sacredness that could permeate our entire existence, individually and corporately. Until we’re able to do this, at least as a mental experiment, the fact that many parts of the world are offended by this film or do not particularly wish to be democracies, will always mystify us.