Wednesday, December 08, 2004

A piece from Sojourners

Don't put a restraining order on God
by David Batstone

In Cupertino, California, a public school teacher ignited a cultural powder keg this semester when he supplemented the standard-issue history book with materials backing up his contention that religion was central to the founding fathers.

In New York City last week, several major television networks banned a paid advertisement produced by the United Churches of Christ. The commercial features a core value of the UCC church - that it welcomes with grace all people into its community regardless of an individual's background.

These recent, high-profile events give us a clear view into the often muddled moral values debate that rages from shore to shore in America today. They show both cultural conservatives and cultural liberals using the same arguments to restrict public conversation. More pointedly, each side of the polar (as in cold...war) divide is happy to ban a message from the public square if that message does not align with its own cherished beliefs.

I expect a spirited debate from both ends of the spectrum, so better to address the assumed frontline counterattacks. Liberals claim they are upholding the cherished separation of "church and state" when they put a restraining order on God from entering public schools. The Constitution, however, nowhere stipulates that religion should be deemed a taboo subject in public life. The state (and by extension public schools) is prohibited from the establishment of religion, indeed. But that's a far cry from outright exclusion.

Steven Williams wants to teach his fifth-graders how deeply Christian values shaped early America. So he passed out to his class William Penn's "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania" in which Penn wrote, "Government seems to me a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end."

Talk about crossing the church-state wall! With that kind of pedigree, we should kick Pennsylvania out of the Union posthaste. Wait a minute, put Delaware on that list as well. A list of religious clauses in the 1776 Delaware state constitution requires officeholders to "profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son."

To ban any reference to religious conviction in the early history of America would be rewriting history. So that's ridiculous. But the complaint goes deeper in the Cupertino case, because Williams is a practicing Christian who wants his students to realize that faith in God continues to be an important element in government. A parent of a student at the Cupertino school complains, "This is not about teaching history, this is about indoctrination."

I honestly do not know if Williams is directly proselytizing in the classroom. I bet not, though I would not be surprised if he hopes that a seed of faith might be planted in his students' lives. For most secularists, it does not matter. Any teaching about religion in history or contemporary life is akin to "indoctrination."

Cultural conservatives likely are standing atop their chairs cheering at this point. But why don't they apply that same enthusiasm to defend the right of the United Church of Christ to proclaim its message on national television? It's because they are no less interested in legislating their own narrow stream of moral values. They, too, want all Americans to be converted into their own image.

After reading all of the hype about the "controversial" commercial, I went to view it on an Internet site. I was totally shocked at how innocuous it was. In my opinion, it also captured the gospel stories of Jesus accepting into table fellowship those very people that his society deemed as "unclean." Like it or not, UCC theology and ethics has a firm grounding in the biblical tradition of grace and freedom.

The commercial does not address gay marriage as much of the conservative media would lead you to believe. It does not even address the gay lifestyle, beyond showing two men who fit the stereotype approaching the church steps and being turned away by a bouncer. At another point, two women standing together smile broadly at the camera. I suppose that's the offensive "lesbian" moment.

But even if the United Church of Christ did promote more directly its theological position that God blesses gay people, even to marriage together, is that sufficient reason for censoring its message? I hope you agree with me that it is not, for I would like to reserve that same open platform for other faiths and other values. Surely, we could all come up with extreme, destructive viewpoints that do not merit public access, whether they offer divine justification for their values or not (the KKK comes to mind). But that's not the case here.

Maybe the toughest challenge of living in a democracy is to respect the freedom of other people to live according to values that are not your own. Real freedom, however, does not thrive in a moral vacuum (the ardent secularist) or a moral straightjacket (the ardent theocratic). What does my ideal of democracy look like? I can sum it up in a single sentence: A person arrives at faith freely, practices it openly, and uses dialogue with others about their own life path to deepen their understanding.

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