Friday, November 02, 2007

Whose Religion?

I teach several courses that include questions about what is true, how we know what is true, and the like. A recurring theme is the fact that everyone has a perspective, a way of looking at life, a way of processing the raw data of reality that bombards us each day.

I remember learning about the beginning of the United States. My school days, when I learned such things, are long gone; but I remember among various influences the desire to be able to worship freely, without interference from the State. People who were religiously disenfranchised in Holland or in England found a place where they could worship according to their own conscience. The way that the United States encapsulated this religious freedom in the Constitution is one of our better moments. We have much to be ashamed of, and much to be proud of in our history. Enshrining religious freedom in the First Amendment and in our laws is one of our better actions.

Of course, the action has been interpreted in different ways throughout our history. Earlier in our life as a nation, the First Amendment functioned to prevent the new country making one denomination the official church of the new state. Americans who had left the established Church of England behind avoided establishing another church in their new country, even when it was the church of their own choice. More recently, as the United States becomes increasingly pluralist (religiously and culturally), the First Amendment has come to serve as a way to keep religion in general out of the public square.

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is well known for its activities in protecting the civil rights of Americans, often with respect to the First Amendment. A statement from its web page on religion is instructive:
"Some people, however, mistakenly use the word "public" when they really mean 'governmental.' This can be seen, for example, with Ten Commandments monuments. The right of churches and families to erect such monuments on their own property is constitutionally protected, regardless of whether it is public or private and regardless of whether someone is offended or not. A Christian cross that is fully visible from a public sidewalk is constitutionally protected when placed in front of a church. But if that same cross were moved across the street and placed in front of city hall, it would violate the Constitution. The issue is not 'religion in the public square' - as the rhetoric misleadingly suggests - but whether the government should be making decisions about whose sacred texts and symbols should be placed on government property and whose should be rejected."

I like what I see on the ACLU's web page. I agree with much that I find there. But their statement quoted above gets at the difficulty I feel. To express that difficulty, I digress into the history of my own church. The Brethren in Christ have roots going back to the Anabaptists, who began in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland at the end of the 16th Century. The Swiss Anabaptists in Zurich, Switzerland began as followers of Zwingli, and his movement against the Roman Catholic Church. I remember in seminary learning about the way that Zwingli and his young followers sought to purify the church in Zurich.

They cleaned out the decorations and symbols of the Roman church, scrubbing their sanctuary clean of all the religious symbols they could. There was one problem. The pulpit set in a clean sanctuary, with white walls and no other symbols, became a powerful new symbol, reflecting the new church's commitment to the preached word. The Anabaptists followed through on the power of the new symbol more consistently than did Zwingli, which became a basic cause of their own separation from him to form their own church.

In a similar way, a public square (or governmental square, in the ACLU terminology) scrubbed clean of religious symbols is itself a symbol of a particular religious commitment. The commitment to "no religion" is a commitment to secularism, in which secularism functions precisely as every religion always has.

One reason that some Christian conservatives have felt pushed out of public discourse in the United States (and in Canada, where I now live) is that they recognize, however vaguely, that their Christian religion has been supplanted by another religion. The problem is not that Christianity needs to be enfranchised, but that Secularism needs to be disenfranchised. What a genuinely free public/governmental square looks like is another question. In this essay I have tried to lay out a basic problem that operates within the USA and Canada, especially in the Academic community (where I make my living) and in that part of the public square which is controlled specifically by the government.

No new ideas here; just a problem to keep wrestling with: Whose religion does the country live by?