Sarah Palin — can you believe it — has once again inserted the cosmic foot folly into her mouth by likening water boarding to baptism. I wonder if she had made similar remarks about the mode of baptism — say, by comparing Baptists’ immersion practices to torture as opposed to the humane treatment of Presbyterians sprinkling infants and adults — if she would have received as much flack. (You do know the old joke that at the exodus, God sprinkled the Israelites but dunked the Egyptians.) Or what if Palin had switched the object of water boarding from terrorists to Don Sterling? Might that have complicated the offended thoughts of many Americans?
I’ve long defended Palin against the offensive treatment she’s received at the hands of a blatantly biased media, a media that collectively lost its mind the moment she entered the national stage. But that hardly means she must be defended at all times. … This is a perfect example not just of civil religion but also how civil religion harms the church. Civil religion is that folk religion that serves to further advance the cause of the state.
That still doesn’t mean that commenting on Palin’s faux pas one shows great discernment. So to complicate Palin’s comparison of torture to baptism, consider the substance of John Danforth’s homily at the funeral for Ronald Reagan:
Reagan’s most challenging test came on the day he was shot. He wrote in his diary of struggling for breath and of praying.
“I realized that I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who shot me,” he wrote.
“Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children, and therefore equally loved by Him. So I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”
He was a child of light.
Now consider the faith we profess in this church. Light shining in darkness is an ancient biblical theme. Genesis tells us that in the beginning, darkness was upon the face of the deep. Some equate this darkness with chaos.
And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”
Creating light in darkness is God’s work.
You and I know the meaning of darkness. We see it on the evening news: terror, chaos, war. An enduring image of 9/11 is that on a brilliantly clear day a cloud of darkness covered Lower Manhattan.
Darkness is real, and it can be terrifying. Sometimes it seems to be everywhere. So the question for us is what do we do when darkness surrounds us?
St. Paul answered that question. He said we must walk as children of light. President Reagan taught us that this is our mission, both as individuals and as a nation.
The faith proclaimed in this church is that when we walk as children of light, darkness cannot prevail. As St. John’s gospel tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
That’s true even of death. For people of faith, death is no less awful than for anyone else, but the Resurrection means that death is not the end.
The Bible describes the most terrible moment in these words: “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until in the afternoon.”
That was the darkness of Good Friday. It did not prevail. Very early on the first day of the week when the sun had risen, that’s the beginning of the Easter story.
The light shines; the Lord is risen.
If only Danforth would have received the same amount of outrage that Palin justifiably is receiving.
The deity of civil religion is a demanding god. It gives life and inspiration to millions when it generates a comforting fusion of the life of Jesus Christ with the life of a not-so religious president. This god takes away when it encourages people like Palin to confuse the sweetness and light of generic faith with the sour and dark of torturing persons suspected of terrorism.
Perhaps the application of this little encounter with the god of civil religion is to just say no (sorry for the split infinitive). Deny this god’s existence in good first-commandment fashion. Then we can avoid elevating our presidents to canonized saints and leave our dear sister Sarah some other means to derail American conservatism.