Since I don’t listen to State of the
Republic Union speeches, I’m not about to spend much time on what presidents say at National Prayer Breakfasts. (Why can’t it be National Word Breakfast? Why is it a monologue of Americans speaking to God and not the other way around?) But given the attention that President Obama’s remarks have received, I figured I’d try to discern what all the fuss is about. (More to come on the current efforts to rehabilitate the Crusades as a defensive war.)
The president thinks we have three ways to keep religion from being used as a “weapon” — humility, the separation of church and state, and the Golden Rule. It sounds nice in a “have a nice day” sort of way but it also sounds like what I’d expect to hear at a forum ready made for civil religion. Here’s the thing. If you want the separation of church and state, why have a National Prayer Breakfast? But someone like my mother might ask — what harm can a little prayer do? Has anyone heard of blasphemy? Might it be a tad blasphemous to invoke a generic god for all believers in the land? Would the first Christians have participated in such syncretism? So why do today’s “conservative” Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) so easily fall for this stuff? Maybe for the same reason that they let Jesus’ words, turned into John Winthrop’s — city on a hill — describe not their congregation or communion but their nation. I will give Michael Sean Winters credit on this one. He is disturbed by the mixing of religion and politics (even to the point of questioning whether Pope Francis should speak to Congress):
I confess I am very wary of the Pope’s addressing Congress: The optics seems all wrong, such a specifically political setting, and a powerful one too. Note to papal visit planners: The White House, the Capitol, the UN, even in its way the National Shrine, none of these really represent the peripheries where Pope Francis is most comfortable and where he has repeatedly said he wants the Church to be. I get creeped out when, at the Red Mass, they play the national anthem after the processional hymn but before the Mass begins in earnest. Of course, no politician would have the courage to simply refuse to go to the prayer breakfast. It would take a preacher-turned-politician, like Mike Huckabee, to pull that off, as it took a Nixon to go to China. I think we can all agree that a Huckabee presidency would be too high a price to pay for the breakfast to end. So, it will continue and presidents will continue to speak about things they should not speak about and say things about religion that are deeply cynical. There are worse things that happen in the world.
Aside from that last sentence, I think Winters is right. The worst thing in the world is to reverse the order of the Great (not pretty good) commandment and the Second that is like it. Upsetting your neighbor is one thing. But upsetting God?
For that reason, as much as I appreciate Matt Tuininga’s return to blogging (but why close comments?) and his push back against the conservative pundits who went batty over the president’s speech, I am not sure why Matt would be so positive about the “overall tone of the speech.” Matt included this excerpt as representative of that tone:
Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number….
If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
I pray that we will. And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”
Au contraire. If our job is to be true to God, how do we do that while tolerating those who aren’t true to God? How could we ever be true to God in a way that suggests we don’t know what being true to God looks like? How can we say we don’t know God’s purpose when he has revealed it in his word, and how can we say that we don’t see his grace when he has revealed himself in his son, the word incarnate? And who exactly is this “we” when we have a separation of church and state and freedom of conscience that includes in this “we” Americans who do not believe in God (or who believe in the wrong god)?
What the president said reminds me yet again of the casuistry that Ishmael in Moby Dick used to rationalize blasphemy and idolatry:
I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth – pagans and all included – can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.
The challenge, then, is not to hold to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam in a way that recognizes a common religious enterprise that unites us all. It is to find a form of diligent and serious Christianity (and more) that engages believers in a common civil enterprise with other believers and unbelievers. That is what two-kingdom theology and the spirituality of the church try to do. As valuable as that remedy may be, I for one don’t want to see the president talk about it at a National Prayer Breakfast. That would do to 2k what Constantine did to Christianity.