Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Defending the Faith is Defending the Church against State Encroachment

The USA legal system has always upheld the “ministerial exception” in accordance with the 1st Amendment’s church-state separation:

• Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Historian Edwin Gaustad explains what this has meant historically:

• Here a double guarantee could be found: first, that government would do nothing to favor religion; second, that government would do nothing to inhibit religion…government would simply keep its hands off. (A Religious History of America, 120)

This upheld the church’s right to hire and fire their ministers without State interference. But how far should this “ministerial exception” extend? Should the church also have this latitude in its selection of music ministers, Sunday school teachers and Christian School teachers? Barry Lynn, an ordained UCC minister and head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, would severely limit the “ministerial exception”:

• I think some religious organizations use this idea of a ministerial exception as a pretext to dismiss people on the basis of their color, their gender, their racial background, or their disability, and that really runs counter to every principle of, I think, morality and every principle of our civil rights system.

Of course, this is a possibility. However, state interference into church matters doesn’t guarantee a more ethical church or a better society. And would we want the State to have increasingly monopolistic powers? Our Founding Fathers had a healthy fear of such power concentrated in the State. Gaustad writes,

• One common thread bound the states together in peace even as it held them together in war: the fear of tyranny, of ALL tyranny, civil or ecclesiastical, foreign or domestic. (115)

State interference in the church would not only be tyrannical, it will also mean the death of the church as we know it. If the church is not free to choose its leadership, then the church can’t remain the church but instead an insipid appendage of our increasingly secularized and tyrannical society.

Would the secularization of every church – many are already quite secularized – improve society? For one thing, there couldn’t have been a United States without strict guarantees against State interference. Few, perhaps none, would have tolerated such a state of affairs. Even the Deists appreciated the role of the church and the Christian religion and wanted to protect them. Gaustad summarizes their stance:

• In the minds of the nation’s founders, liberty in religion was of critical importance to all humankind. Also critical, however, was a commitment to religion on the part of the citizens of the young nation. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson all agreed and in various public addresses asserted that ours was a universe of morality and reason, and a universe in which right would prevail – if not in this life, then in the life beyond. “A future state,” John Adams affirmed in 1823, “will set all aright; without the supposition of a future state I can make nothing of this Universe but a Chaos.” The whole world, without divine justice, would be only “a boyish Fire Work.” Providence sustained, Providence guided, and the future both within history and beyond history rested firmly in the control of a providential and “All Wise Creator.” (127)

In “God of Liberty,” historian Thomas S. Kidd writes:

• Whether evangelical or rationalist, most Patriots assumed that Christianity would, in some sense, be the cornerstone for the preservation of the new American Republic. (112)

In his 1796 Farewell Address, the beloved George Washington reiterated these broadly accepted sentiments:

• Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars…The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them…reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (112)

These sentiments were broadly held. Kidd writes,

• Through the era of the Civil War most Americans would continue to believe that the Christian religion should assist government in lifting people’s moral dispositions, so that they might contribute positively to the freedom of the Republic. Even the skeptical Thomas Jefferson believed that Christianity, in it original purity, ‘is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty. (114)

Christianity is where liberty developed for all people – not just the ruling class – and Christianity is where it has been maintained. In contrast, atheistic secularism, while promising a worker’s paradise, has always taken humanity in the opposite direction. A quick look at Maoist China, the USSR or the Khmer Rouge or any other atheistic state leaves us with no other conclusion. Surprisingly, our nation is taking us down this same path:

The Obama administration is taking a hard line in the case. To the dismay of many religious groups, the Justice Department urged the [Supreme] Court to reject the ministerial exception altogether, saying the First Amendment doesn’t offer such special protection.

Once the “ministerial exception” is removed, the church will have to conform to all federal hiring guidelines. It will not be able to reject a ministerial candidate based upon religion or lifestyle choices or any other classification that the state might choose to add.

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