In What Robes Do the U.S. Courts See Me?

Russell Moore weighs in on the recent Supreme Court decision about a town opening its council meetings in prayer. He does not believe this is an establishment of religion and so defends the majority opinion. But he goes further to address the question of why have prayer at all:

Some would say, further, that we could eliminate this tension altogether by simply disallowing any sort of prayer. In her dissent, Justice Kagan said that we come to our government simply as Americans, not as representatives of various religious traditions. But, again, this is itself a religious claim, that faith is simply a private personal preference with no influence on our public lives. That’s a claim that millions of us, whatever our religious beliefs, reject.

Prayer at the beginning of a meeting is a signal that we aren’t ultimately just Americans. We are citizens of the State, yes, but the State isn’t ultimate. There is some higher allegiance than simply political process. We often disagree on what this more ultimate Reality is, but the very fact that the State isn’t the ultimate ground of reality serves to make all of us better citizens, striving to seek for justice in ways that aren’t simply whatever the majority can vote through. And it reminds us that there is a limit to the power of politics and of government.

I don’t understand why this makes sense of any proper notion of jurisdiction. The only claims the state has on me is as an American citizen. It doesn’t touch my identity as a Christian any more than it touches my neighbor’s as a Mormon. Towns, townships, counties, and states in the United States assemble people by virtue of their civil identity only. Of course, if you think that you have only one identity, the way that the propagandists for race, gender, and sexual orientation have taught us, then you may want to say in good evangelical fashion that everything I am is Christian — all the way down. But if religious conviction and church membership is only one one part of me, if I am a member of a heavenly city, while also a citizen of the earthly city (in addition to being a husband, cat provider, Joseph Epstein reader), why does the earthly city need to recognize my heavenly identity when I walk around the United States? Aside from the very constitutional notion that public office and citizenship in the U.S. have no religious tests, an Augustinian rendering of the state requires no religious affirmation from public officials or religious trappings to public ceremonies. In fact, an Augustinian could well regard the prayers of towns like Greece a form of blasphemy if said petitions confuse the affairs of the secular realm with the kingdom of Christ. (And frankly, I don’t see any other way of regarding such a prayer — either it is a full-on Christian one that will not perform the public function of including those who can’t pray in Christ’s name, or it is such a bland one that no Christian could pray it.)

So instead of the state needing to recognize my religious side as Moore suggests, a better tack might be to consider justification by faith alone. If God can engage in a legal fiction and view me through the unspotted robes Christ, perhaps U.S. Christians can allow U.S., state, and local officials to engage in an eschatalogical fiction and view us simply as citizens of the United States.

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37 Comments

  1. Posted May 9, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    This civic religion as about as goofy as the Athenian temple to the Unknown (generic?) God. It seems a high theological price to pay for a little warm fuzzy feeling.

  2. Posted May 9, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    My faith means nothing to me unless I can impose it on someone else who had no interest in it.

    Wait, that might be someone else.

  3. Posted May 9, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    The generic god of the public prayer is apparently the same one who makes sure that when people die they go to “a better place”.

  4. AB
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    perhaps U.S. Christians can allow U.S., state, and local officials to engage in an eschatalogical fiction and view us simply as citizens of the United States.

    I could not agree more. Well said.

  5. John H.
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Ah, the last sentence in this post is rich. It slays many dragons. I almost want to say it was transformative, but it could have just been an ordinary call to repentance.

  6. Posted May 9, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    If you read the Moore piece he actually decries generic prayer. But will he be happy with the effects of this freedom. Fundy Xians inspiring fundy…you name it:

    “That’s what we have to do, not only organize the atheists, but the Satanists, the Scientologists,” he said. In a conversation before his talk, he added Muslims, Jews and Hindus. “We as atheists have the responsibility to urge them and push them and get them in there to get their prayers” said at public meetings.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/08/supreme-courty-prayer-ruling-atheists_n_5290425.html

  7. AB
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I wonder in what robes the justices who decided this see themselves:

    The Los Angeles Times pointed out that the decision divided the justices along religious lines, as well as ideological ones. All five justices in the majority were Catholics, and three out of the four dissenters were Jewish.

  8. Dan
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    AB, the case also divided Baptists along religious lines. Moore speaks for the rump Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The organization that has long represented the views of traditional Baptists, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, filed an amicus brief for the losing plaintiffs.

    Bishop Hart’s comments above deserve to be framed– the best and most succinct reaction to this decision I have seen.

  9. AB
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Dan, I imagined having the talk with this with my parents, who, for example, don’t listen to me when I tell them to avoid the movie Son of God, tell me since finding the reformed faith I have become more judgmental, to just say a few things (not that I’m bitter). But it’s hard for some people to get why we’re so with the Governor Bishop here, and I get that. But seriously, this was a close call, with not one of the Roman Catholic justices seeing what all non-Catholics did see. It reminds me of what I used to do before I found the OPC, and was attending evening worship at the non-denominational community church in Santa Barbara. I had a hard time stomaching the singing, so I just slinked in purposefully late. When I brought my wife, raised OPC, to that church, she broke down the errors, told me not to return, and I was a bit miffed, I suppose. Turns out she was right. Why does that keep happening, Dan (emotion)?

  10. AB
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    *Correction: Sotomayor was also in the dissenting opinion. Point is, that yes, Governor Bishop Hart had this locked and dialed in. That’s why he’s The Dude (emoticon).

  11. Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    This ruling could make for a promising reality TV show (and cheap because it would just be local station clips with a snarky voiceover): Prayers Gone Wild.

  12. Dan
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    AB, Sotomayor, a Catholic, dissented.

    Some of us have never changed. One of (all about) my earliest memories of a sermon was that preached in the (then Southern) Baptist Church I grew up in shortly after the Supreme Court decided Engel v. Vitale in 1962. The pastor praised God that we had a Supreme Court that had the courage to say that the State of New York couldn’t tell school children how to pray. I can’t recall anybody disagreeing. (Perhaps I remember it so well because otherwise folks opinion of the Warren Court was so universally negative).

  13. Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I like this Bishop thing. If you are a church elder, please indicate that so I can address you properly.

  14. Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    “Bishop Weakly”

  15. JP
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    You could do a lot of things at the beginning of a city council meeting as a signal “that we aren’t ultimately just Americans.” A sermon, the Lord’s Supper, a full-blown worship service. I think even Moore would say those things wouldn’t be necessary or appropriate. So why is prayer different?

  16. Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Dan. Be careful, victor delta, tango will consign you to groopy hell.

  17. JP
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    And doesn’t Moore ultimately come around to endorsing some form of civil religion despite saying he is opposed to it?

    It’s hard for me to see how prayers that merely “signal that we aren’t ultimately just Americans” even if clothed in sectarian language aren’t civil religion as opposed to the real thing.

  18. Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Erik, I prefer Metropolitan since I’m in the Eastern Church…East Tennessee, that is.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_address

  19. Dan
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    He already called me a fascist.

  20. JP
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    One other reason why 2k is great: it allows me to conclude that, from a legal perspective, the prayers probably do not constitute an establishment of religion within the meaning of the First Amendment and, at the same time, conclude that they are not worthwhile or productive for members of the church to be pursuing.

  21. AB
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Dan, that’s neat history about the Engel v. Vitale, and I looked up the amicus you spoke of. It mentions that the PCUSA has joined in with the BJC as well. Thanks, and take care.

  22. mark mcculley
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    DGH: If God can engage in a legal fiction and view me through the unspotted robes Christ, perhaps U.S. Christians can allow U.S., state, and local officials to engage in an eschatalogical fiction and view us simply as citizens of the United States.

    mark: I know you were simply using the language of those with whom you disagree when you use the phrase “legal fiction”, but nevertheless the legal solidarity between the justified elect and Christ is no fiction. The sins of the elect imputed to Christ result in the just punishment of Christ their surety for their guilt, and until that legal reconciliation was received by these elect by means of God’s real legal imputation, these same elect were born in sins and under condemnation.

    When these elect are placed into Christ’s death (not by water) but in reality by God’s legal identification (Romans 6), they are already justified in this present age, not because of what they will do or because of what God promises to do, but because of what Christ has in reality already done back then when He died on the cross.

    And since those who have been justified are already citizens of Christ’s kingdom in this age, we need to obey the commands of our King who said—-

    Matthew 6 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them… 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
    7 “And when you pray, do not heap up EMPTY PHRASES as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 DO NOT BE LIKE THEM.

    We can say that it’s not the Court’s job to decide which rituals are empty and which are not, but the attempt to not be sectarian is already the mark of the merely ceremonial….

  23. mark mcculley
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Machen— I am opposed to the reading of the Bible in public schools. As for any presentation of general principles of what is called “religion”, supposed to be exemplified in various positive religions, including Christianity, such presentation is opposed to the Christian religion at its very heart. The relation between the Christian way of salvation and other ways is not a relation between the adequate and the inadequate or between the perfect and the imperfect, but it is a relation between the true and the false. The minute a professing Christian admits that he can find neutral ground with non-Christians in the study of “religion” in general, he has given up the battle and has made common cause with that syncretism which is today, as it was in the first century, the deadliest enemy of the Christian Faith.

  24. mark mcculley
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    The attempt to build the world on Christian principles ends only with the total capitulation of the Church to the world… If it does not involve a radical hostility to the Church that is only because no real distinction has ever been drawn between the offices of Church and state. Godlessness remains more covert. The ritual attempt deprives the Church even of the blessing of suffering and of the possible rebirth which suffering may engender.” Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p 40

    “I hear myself. I do not wait for God to listen to me…I construct my own hearing of my prayer. I observe that I prayed piously, and this observation provides the satisfaction of being heard. I have given myself the satisfaction of public acclaim.. Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p 154

  25. mark mcculley
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    John Fesko– “That the righteous deeds of the saints….are given to the saints is evident in both Isaiah 61:10 and Revelation 19:8. When we correlate these data with Revelation 20:11-15 and the book of life of the Lamb that was slain (Rev. 20:12; 13:8), what emerges is that it is the obedience, or righteousness, of Christ that is imputed that is the ground of judgment for the believer. We see the same wedding-garment imagery connected with the work of Christ in Paul [Ephesians. 5:25-27) The bride of Christ, then, is clothed in righteousness which by imputation is the righteous deeds of the saints” ( Justification, p 327)

    Romans 14: 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on herself for what she approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if she eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin

    I Corinthians 4:5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart

    Revelation 2:17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

    Letter to Diognetus: “As the visible body contains the invisible spirit, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen.”

    Jonathan Malesic (PhD, University of Virginia), Secret Faith in the Public Square–”A majority of Republican primary voters told pollsters that it was important that a candidate share their religious commitments.”

  26. mark mcculley
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Christ’s sheep do not contribute any part of their own wool to their own clothing. They wear, and are justified by, the fine linen of Christ’s obedience only. ” (Augustus Toplady)

  27. Dan Reuter
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    I remember that when Engel v. Vitale was decided, a NY Democratic Party colleague of my father told him how glad it made him, because he remembered how excluded he felt as a child in public school, regularly compelled to listen to the reading of the King James Bible.

  28. Dan
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    The prayer in Engel was actually composed by a State board.

  29. Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    mcmark on machen, mega ding mega ding mega ding mega ding mega ding mega ding — ding out the wazoo!

  30. Posted May 10, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    George Will wishes atheists in America were more amiable and less prickly:

    The court prudently avoided the potentially endless task of adumbrating criteria by which local governments, acting as piety police, could finely calibrate a constitutionally acceptable quantity of devoutness in public prayers, or could draw a bright line between acknowledging and worshiping a divinity. So, the court can expect to hear again from militantly aggravated secularists.

    Taking offense has become America’s national pastime; being theatrically offended supposedly signifies the exquisitely refined moral delicacy of people who feel entitled to pass through life without encountering ideas or practices that annoy them. As the number of nonbelievers grows — about 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, as are one-third of adults under the age of 30 — so does the itch to litigate believers into submission to secular sensibilities.

    The United States would be a more congenial place if it had more amiable atheists who say, as one such did, that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    Couldn’t Christians wish Russell Moore wasn’t more careful about prayer?

  31. Posted May 10, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    It would have been interesting to have pressed Machen on Christian schools when the board members did not share the same Confession of faith.

  32. Posted May 10, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Russell Moore: “Prayer at the beginning of a meeting is a signal that we aren’t ultimately just Americans. We are citizens of the State, yes, but the State isn’t ultimate. There is some higher allegiance than simply political process. We often disagree on what this more ultimate Reality is, but the very fact that the State isn’t the ultimate ground of reality serves to make all of us better citizens, striving to seek for justice in ways that aren’t simply whatever the majority can vote through.”

    GW: This is a pathetically pragmatic defense of the current syncretistic, generic civil religion of America. Adding a dose of religion (in the form of generic prayer) to a civil meeting is used for a merely civil purpose. As Moore states, God is being used here “to make all of us better citizens.” This kind of practice is nothing less than a violation of the third commandment, and blasphemy. It is anti-Christian to the core, even though the practice is widely defended by professing Christians. Michael Horton has also rightly pointed out (in his book on the 10 commandments) that such inter-faith prayer is anti-evangelistic, for it implies that Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians can approach God without the mediation of Jesus Christ.

    While there is no legal test of religion required for one to serve in public office, one suspects that a potential candidate for office who was a confessional Protestant but who refused to participate in the syncretistic ceremonies of public civil religion would have almost chance of getting elected. Even if he were staunchly conservative and strictly constitutional in his views, the evangelical voting populace would likely refuse to vote for him because of his refusal to sacralize the secular realm by participating in civil religion.

    Orthodox, confessional Christians do not worship the Deity of generic American civil religion; we worship the blessed, Holy Trinity. We reject the generic, lowest-common-denominator god of American civil religion for what he/she/it is: an idol. We refuse to sacralize the secular, for when you try to sacralize the secular, the end result is the secularizing of the sacred.

  33. AB
    Posted May 10, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    We’re making a difference. Mark’s Machen quoting got me to drop some hard earned U.S. legal tender. I’ll be working my debt off with every page I read. Thanks guys (emoticon).

  34. AB
    Posted May 10, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Geoff, that’s a fantastic comment!

  35. Posted May 10, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Geoff Willour: “While there is no legal test of religion required for one to serve in public office, one suspects that a potential candidate for office who was a confessional Protestant but who refused to participate in the syncretistic ceremonies of public civil religion would have almost chance of getting elected.”

    I meant to write, “almost NO chance”.

  36. Zrim
    Posted May 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Erik, who knows what Machen would’ve said. But when it comes to day schools, even some of the most ardent 2kers turn neo-Calvinist and invoke the ecumenical category of worldview to paper over the differences between those who claim Christian. Would that those who recognize the dangers of civil religion in the public square also see the dangers of worldview in academia.

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