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Uncivil Civil Religion

Uncivil Civil Religion

    Judge Roy Moore of Alabama has created quite a stir with his crusade to post the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of a state judicial building.  I hear in his antics echoes of the protests raised following the implementation of a Supreme Court decision disallowing priests, pastors, rabbis, and, I assume, imams from saying benedictions at public school graduations. 

    We are a religious nation.  Our currency proclaims, "In God We Trust."  The pledge of allegiance, since the 1950's at least, has citizens state that we are one nation "under God."  The presidents of our nation seem to be obliged to refer to the deity in every public speech.  Even the mayors of New York City - that metropolis deemed by many in the Bible Belt to be the source of all things unGodly in our society - court the several religious communities which comprise the city.  No one wanting to be elected could ever say a kind word for Madelyn O'Hare. 

    The controversy around Judge Moore taps into a very basic and traditional source of our national identity and unity.

    I am no stranger to civil religion.  By that term I mean the public expressions of piety in the name of transcendence, safely referred to simply as "God," but never specifically as the Father of Jesus Christ or Allah or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In the course of my public professional duties, I have prayed over cabin cruisers on Memorial Day in Reynolds Channel near the home of Guy Lombardo.  I have, side by side with priest, rabbi, and imam, led a candlelight vigil following the 9/11 trauma.  I have invoked the living, loving God before scores of monuments honoring the dead of past wars.  I served as a chaplain for a volunteer fire department.  I have offered table grace at Kiwanis Club meetings and banquets honoring people I really didn't know. 

    In short, I  know a thing or two about civil religion and its proper practice. 

    And in my own life and ministry, I have made a distinction between civil religion and real religion.  Real religion is what I believe with all my heart and believe fervently.  It is the evocation of my soul.  In that real religion Jesus is central.  I cannot think of God without first thinking of him.  (My friend, Rabbi Sy Resnikoff, always looked at me knowingly when I would conclude a public prayer with "in your great name"; knowing, the rabbi did, whom I really meant, and needling me gently about it afterward.)  In civil religion, however, concluding a prayer with the phrase "through Jesus Christ our Lord," is tantamount to burping aloud. 

    Long ago, as long ago as Roger Williams of Rhode Island fame, a Baptist kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he didn't conform to Puritan expectations, Williams framed the doctrine of "the separation of church and state."  It was written into the Bill of Rights, where Congress was and is prohibited from establishing religion.  The full implementation of that right is an ongoing process.  Sometimes it works out as equal time. The menorah has joined the creche on many a village green. Perhaps the crescent will soon appear there during Ramadan.  Sometimes the separation is expressed as a prohibition.  I, an ordained clergyman, am no longer permitted to invoke God or bless students at a public school graduation ceremony.  (Whereas a few religious professionals were upset with the ruling, I frankly rejoiced at the prospect of three previously occupied June evenings I could now spend at home.)    

    Those in our land who think the separation between church and state is too severe should listen to the hope of the son of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, himself an ayatollah.  In an interview recently with The New York Times correspondent, Thomas Friedman, the Iranian religious leader expressed the need in his society for the separation of mosque and state.  Can there be any development more antithetical to the aim of Islamic militants like Osama bin Laden?  Let The Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say a loud, if somewhat hesitant, "Amen."  Theocracy (government run by religious authority) stinks.  And it has bloodied the human landscape throughout history.  Experts in eternity are apparently incapable of accepting the constraints of temporal governance.  What the world needs now, and probably always needs, is not religious intoxication but people schooled in diplomacy and the art of compromise. 

    The wonder to me is that Ayatollah Khomeini's offspring can comprehend this necessity while Judge Roy Moore doesn't. 

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