Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the archeological site at Petra in Jordan. Tombs are carved out of red sandstone in this valley and some of them have elaborate pillars and creatures carved in their faces. The largest tomb was featured in the climactic scene of the first Indiana Jones movie. In most every case the faces of people, angels and animals had been broken away. When asked about it, our guide told us that iconoclasts (“image destroyers”) had shot off the faces of the carvings because they were offended by artistic representations of living things.
I thought of those lonely Bedouins shooting off the faces of stone camels when a spate of items related to the mention of God in the public square came through the news. In one case, a federal judge has banned the mention of “Jesus” in invocations at the Indiana State Legislature. In another case, the ACLU is reported to oppose the mention of God in the Boy Scout’s oath on the grounds it violates separation of church and state. Still another case involves anti-God activist (would a true atheist fight so hard against someone he’s sure doesn’t exist?) Michael Newdow and his effort to get “In God we trust” taken off our currency.
What is the actual benefit of acknowledging God in our money, pledge, monuments, and legislatures? It is apparently a cultural holdover of earlier efforts to remind us that God is sovereign over rulers and human endeavors. In fact the phrase on our currency was added to show “a distinct and unequivocal national recognition of divine sovereignty.” That opinion and desire still reigns in America. Even if relatively few of us live as though our God rules, fewer still are offended at the notion. This smaller number seems to prevail at every turn.
Here’s my point. Although there may be little actually religious to most of us about having God’s name on our money, there is an evident hostility built into the action of scratching it out. Maybe you’re not particularly blessed by “In God we trust,” but does it incite you to violent legal action? Banishing the mention of America’s theistic, even Christian, heritage is a hugely religious statement. It blesses a very small and wool-headed collection of atheists and functional atheists in clerical collars. Why should they be put in charge? It’s easier to suggest why they shouldn’t.
These guys should not prevail because they’re wrong. They are wrong to suggest that schoolchildren (in Florida) reading “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is comparable to establishing a state church. If they are concerned about a more dynamic interpretation of the First Amendment, it should be noted that Americans overwhelmingly disagree with them on this. They are wrong in thinking they speak for anyone else. In reality, I think they know this and want to straighten the rest of us out. How arrogant.
Today’s religious censors should not prevail because their work is only destructive. It’s cool, I guess, to talk about liberty and opportunity and toleration but in a no-faith zone those concepts are way too vague. Why is someone else’s liberty worth working or dying for? Why be tolerant of people we find odd or powerless? The answer to such questions will eventually rest on what we consider to be ultimately significant. Law is not ultimate, it’s derived. Tradition or custom will often uphold unconsidered prejudice. The work of moral philosophers is also derivative and arguable. Very few things can be considered ultimate or even bigger than ourselves. Thus the problem.
Professor Rodney Stark of Baylor University has written a book titled, “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.” It’s just out and I’ve not found it yet but a recent interview in World, as well as his earlier work, makes it sound promising. It might also be threatening. His point, as you might discern from the title, is that, “Only Christians believed that God’s gift of reason made progress inevitable.” This means that other religions with their cyclical or nostalgic view of history are not a firm foundation for theological, social, technical, or artistic progress.
The threat here is that our culture can reject that progressive attitude by simply banishing its Source from our cultural dialogue. If we stop attributing our laws or any noble act to the God who revealed them, they lose the power to teach us what is good. You can see a vision of this future when you look at the remnants of infrastructure in formerly colonial North Africa or at the dearth of artistic progress in Russia between 1918 and 1989. It coasts to a stop as the jungle is let back in.
So, if the God of Abraham no longer passes muster in the public square and if our culture is not poised to worship Allah or Zoroaster, we are left rootless and stupid?barbarians with nuclear weapons.
In our shallow understanding of the significance of today’s decisions, two choices seem to arise. We can either risk wounding the feelings of a small but loud collection of professional victims or we can erase every potentially offensive way our culture has of describing itself. The latter choice will leave us with nothing we mostly agree on?splintered and fractious. We could become the cultural equivalent of the fourth- century barbarian hordes. They left nothing, built nothing, and discovered nothing. They only broke and stole and ruined with occasional breaks to kill each other.
I’d hate to leave the choice above to some of my fellow Christians. During the writing of this column fully a half dozen new cases of legal action or public scolding related to the public mention of God came across my desk. One of the more laughable pieces equates saying “Merry Christmas” with harsh racial epithets during our segregationist period. These guys get a nose bleed every time Michael Newdow has a thought. Don’t laugh because they are also armed with judges of mass destruction.
The fourth chapter of James’ letter is focused on arrogance in our relationship with God. The passage in verses 13-17 is aimed at us when we make plans without considering God’s lordship over our lives. It’s an attitude thing more than it is attaching a “Lord willing” to every plan we express. But attitudes are reflected by hard currency, so to speak. If words in a pledge, on currency, or engraved on public buildings remind us that our nation and it’s prosperity have a source, that is not sectarian or hate speech so much as it is the prevailing belief of Americans of all the ages.
To deny it by deliberate action is sectarian and religious, though. It is also amazing arrogance. If America’s progress is derived from our understanding of God and his revelation of himself, that understanding can be lost. As a culture, we can begin to wander toward barbarism as the best viable option to theism. We own too many of the blessings wrought by Christian imagination to make such wandering safe or desirable to almost anyone.
Newdow, American’s United’s Barry Lynn, and a growing host of judges and celebrities are nothing but modern Vandals, capable only of detracting from American culture. They have nothing to offer in the place of our godly heritage.
“God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble,” James 4:6.