Do We Need a Federal Agency to Regulate Religious Identity?

I was reading this piece over the weekend on home schooling and the author struck me with her use of identifications:

From its inception, the movement included both religious homeschoolers who sought to remove secular influences from their children’s lives, and secular homeschoolers whose motivations were based on beliefs about child development. After the Supreme Court ended state-sponsored prayer in schools in the early 1960s, Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony began to urge parents to consider homeschooling as a means of protecting their children from the secular school environment. Ray Moore, a Seventh-day Adventist who had worked in higher education, began to promote homeschooling for a combination of religious and developmental reasons. Moore argued that homeschooling cultivated children’s natural curiosity and allowed them to learn at an individual pace, an argument that appealed to parents across religious lines. Education theorist John Holt echoed the developmental case for homeschooling in his magazine Growing Without Schooling, founded in 1977. Holt believed that the concept of school was inherently flawed: it created an artificial environment that isolated children from natural learning experiences.

The author’s point about homeschooling may or may not have merit, but why would she not identify Rushdoony as an Armenian-American, an Orthodox Presbyterian, or a Californian? Why Calvinist? And why is John Holt only an “education theorist”? Which extends to the questions of why journalists labeled the Charlie Hebdo killers Muslim or why President Obama refuses to. Why not call them Arab-French? In other words, how do you decide what someone is? What is their primary identity? If you choose to identify someone by an adjective that your readers find odd or unappealing, haven’t you signaled to readers that they need to beware?

These questions are a further reminder that everyone carries around multiple identities. A reporter or scholar may mention one of the markers that identify someone, but it is only a part of who the person is (and perhaps a caricature). The Christian Right has not helped on this. Thanks to neo-Calvinism’s logic of every square inch, the notion that I am anything less than 100% Christian is a betrayal of Christ’s lordship. But if a reporter talks to me about Muslims in America, does it make more sense to identify me as a scholar of religion in the United States than as an elder in the OPC? And when I go to the ballot box, do I go as a Calvinist, a Phillies fan, or an American citizen? Last I checked, Calvinists in Scotland and the Netherlands can’t vote here in Michigan. Is the reason because the U.S. denies Christ’s lordship or immigration officials are wary of Calvinism? Or is it that temporal criteria like residency and citizenship trump belief and church membership? Think “duh.”

A related question is how does a scholar or journalist judge whether a subject qualifies as Calvinist, Roman Catholic, or Muslim? Who gets to determine religious identity? Is it the subject’s own judgment, as in President Obama’s account of his conversion?

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

Or do church, parish, Vatican, or imams decide whether the labels that persons self-apply are valid? David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network said of Obama’s account, “That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience.” I’m not sure Jonathan Edwards would agree. And as clerk of session, I am definitely not going to trust the judgments of a broadcasting network executive about genuine faith. Heck, I wonder if networks can be Christian (remember, no corporate salvation).

And what if churches inflate their numbers? Terry Mattingly, who quoted the president’s conversion account, indicates that Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago did not record President Obama’s membership. (Are the birthers asking for Obama’s certificate of good standing?) I suspect that many churches don’t scrutinize potential members very carefully and don’t keep accurate records of members.

What is the solution? We need a government agency to keep track of religious identity and to issue religious passports. Someone wants to know if I’m a Christian, I flash my government authorized paperwork. It works for voting, health care, banking. Why not church or mosque or synagogue life?

42 thoughts on “Do We Need a Federal Agency to Regulate Religious Identity?

  1. Huh! Kinda reminds me of the practice in some confessional Lutheran congregations (e.g., ELS) where you have to sign a “communion register” before entering the sanctuary.


  2. George,

    Z is pretty well read up on these things, I hadn’t heard of communion seasons neither before he mentioned it:

    Of course, Presbyterians cannot blame their tradition’s affinity for enthusiasm solely on revivalists such as George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. The Scottish Presbyterian practice of communion seasons, as historians have recently argued, where churches administered the Supper only two to four times a year and did so with a week of festivities leading up to the Sacrament, also worked enthusiatical leaven into the lump of Presbyterian practice. Those festivities soon evolved into camp meetings and revivals where the excitement of receiving the Spirit overwhelmed the experience of receiving the benefits of Christ in the Supper. (Cf. William De Arteaga, “When Heaven Touches Earth,” Touchstone 10.2, Spring 1997.)

    Read more:

    If you look in the archives, there’s a few that have been here since the beginning, I think Zrim is the longest standing member though. I put CWU pretty high in that ranking as well.



  3. Collecting those old communion tokens would be kind of cool. Need to see if there are any on ebay.

    Table fencing is a tricky issue. We had an elder leave over it. Had come from the OPC into the URCNA.


  4. Zrim,

    I have a comment in moderation, about the communion seasons. Should show up soon.

    Hope all is well with you and the family.



  5. Brad, someone brought up the Lincecum returns to Dad story at the lunch table last week.

    I’m not keeping my hopes up, but there’s always 2016. We giants are more of an even year team, kind of like star trek movies (how come all the odd’s stink?).


  6. Oh, I hope I am not looking like a Yankees fan. Is redemption possible if that were the case?

    Zrim, it seems that whole Communion Token, Scottish season thing is introspection to the nth degree. No thanks. I can’t even keep up with Mark Jones let alone this seasonal thing.


  7. From TGC’s umpteenth post with this exact title, further descriptorial flights of fancy and nuance”

    Jarvis Williams, a mixed-race scholar who describes himself as a “bald, black, bi-racial man,”

    Since I have Native American and, disturbingly, Appalachian American blood I will now only describe myself as a “(good) haired, white, bi-racial man.”


  8. Don’t let the Democratic Party get wind of this gimmick of calling things that you’re concerned about “a gospel issue”.

    I could see them co-opting that language to market their pet issue of the week.

    “Wealth Inequality is a Gospel Issue”

    “Gender Inequality is a Gospel Issue”

    “Sexual Identity is a Gospel Issue”

    Uh-huh. Yeah…


  9. And, strikingly, nowhere is Mr Williams described as a baptist, which he most assuredly is. Whether that’s because most TGC people, favorites, and promotees are actual or de facto baptists and the tag is always a safe assumption, or because it was not thought relevant by the baptist author-interviewer — who can say?


  10. Listen to Dever’s 3-part interview of Keller on 9 Marks (not sure if part 3 is out yet — it should be any day).

    Keller appears chagrined to have to admit to Dever that Dever, as a Babdist, would not be able to preach in a PCA church.

    Keller partnering with Dever and both of them preaching in a Gospel Coalition event is no problem, though, because the Gospel Coalition is only concerned about the gospel while a faction of Presbyterian hardcores in the PCA is concerned with their narrow minded sectarian hobby horses that only serve to hold TKNY back.


  11. Don’t forget that Machen’s nemesis Fosdick was a baptist preaching in a presbyterian pulpit and that his chief opponents at Princeton were not liberals at all, but evangelical presbyterians — stress on the e-word.


  12. This post is just a lot of words trying to justify your omission of Rushdoony from your Calvinism book, right?


  13. Of course, being Catholic & Conservative does not guarantee that your kid will behave:

    A Child Vs. A Family Fortune

    Court Battle

    October 01, 2008 By DAVE ALTIMARI,

    As William F. Buckley Jr.’s only child, satirist and former White House aide Christopher Buckley is poised to inherit a fortune worth tens of millions of dollars.

    But as Buckley waits for the estate of his late father to go through probate court in Stamford, a former Random House publicist is fighting in a Miami courtroom to increase the $3,000 a month in child support he pays for the special-needs son he fathered with her.

    Irina Woelfle’s lawsuit blames 7-year-old Jonathan’s learning problems, in part, on Christopher Buckley’s refusal to have anything to do with the boy.

    “The father is notably absent from the minor child’s life,” her lawsuit states.

    The legal proceedings involving Christopher Buckley’s relationship with his third child – he has two older children with his wife – have received little attention. Details of the initial case that set the child-support parameters for Jonathan were sealed by Connecticut judicial authorities, who for years hid from the public such lawsuits involving prominent people.

    It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the Buckley family’s efforts to keep Jonathan at arm’s length don’t end with Christopher Buckley. In his will, William F. Buckley Jr. leaves the contents of his estate to Christopher and the two children he fathered with his wife – and leaves no doubt that Jonathan will get none of the money.

    “I intentionally make no provision herein for said Jonathan, who for all purposes … shall be deemed to have predeceased me,” wrote William Buckley, who died in February.

    Attorneys who handle probate matters said William Buckley’s intent was to make it clear Jonathan had no claim to his estate. Not mentioning the boy at all could have opened up the estate to a challenge.

    “The language seems a little over the top; almost mean-spirited,” said Greenwich lawyer Patrick R. Gil, who has handled several high-profile probate cases, including the estate of murdered Greenwich swindler Andrew Kissel.

    “By deeming him pre-deceased, he was making sure no one would let [Jonathan] put his nose under the tent,” Gil said.

    It is a tent worth millions of dollars. William Buckley’s landholdings alone make it likely that the $10 million estimate his son made as part of the paternity case is highly conservative.

    The family’s home on Wallacks Drive in Stamford was assessed at slightly more than $5 million in 2007, according to land records.

    In addition, William Buckley owned a 5,000-square-foot ground-floor maisonette apartment on Park Avenue in one of the most exclusive co-ops on the East Side of New York City. Others who lived in the building include socialite Brooke Astor and designer Vera Wang, whose slightly bigger apartment sold for $33.6 million last year.

    Realtors expect Buckley’s apartment to sell for $23 million to $35 million.

    In the Florida court filing, Woelfle indicates that Jonathan is having difficulties in school because he has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

    Woelfle asserts that the boy needs to attend a private school with a “small, nurturing classroom setting so that Jonathan can thrive and reach his academic potential.”

    The lawsuit makes clear that she wants Christopher Buckley to use his large inheritance to foot the bill, noting that “there has been a substantial change in the Father’s income” since the child support agreement was reached.

    In addition to more money, Woelfle is asking the court to order that Buckley have some contact with his son. In the initial agreement in Superior Court in Stamford, finalized in May of 2003, Christopher Buckley agreed to pay $3,000 a month in child support to Woelfle.

    The agreement also stated that Christopher Buckley did not want visitation rights. The agreement prohibited Woelfle from contacting Buckley directly about Jonathan; all communication goes through their attorneys.

    In the new court filing, Woelfle said the boy has reached the age at which he needs a father figure.

    “As Jonathan gets older, he requires love, attention and a notable involvement in his life from his father,” the lawsuit said. “It is in Jonathan’s best interest and welfare for this court to impose a contact and access schedule on the Father, so that Jonathan can establish a relationship with his Father and extended paternal family.”

    Woelfle now works for a public relations company in Coral Gables, Fla. She met Christopher Buckley when she did public relations for Random House, which published “Thank You for Smoking,” one of his five novels. She was living in Newtown when Jonathan was born in March 2000.

    Woelfle declined to comment. Buckley, who was once a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, could not be reached for comment. He now lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his wife and two children.

    Buckley apparently has put his political leanings aside to fight the Florida case. He has hired attorney Bruce Christensen, of the Miami law firm Richman Greer, the firm that represented members of the Democratic canvassing boards that were sued during the recount scandal in the 2000 presidential election.

    Although he wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, Christensen has filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that Florida courts have no jurisdiction, even though Woelfle and her son now live there.

    Christensen also said that lawyers for the two parties are “working toward a solution to this matter.”

    Buckley filed the lawsuit in Stamford court, seeking to establish parameters for child support in 2003. He originally wanted the case filed under “John Doe vs Jane Doe” to conceal his identity. It eventually was filed as a “Level 2” case, meaning the identities of the two parties were public, but the contents of the file were not.

    For years, Connecticut judges quietly sealed cases from the public’s view. In some cases identified as “Level 1,” the entire files – including the identities of the parties – were kept secret. There were more than 6,300 Level 2 cases like Buckley’s.

    The Courant and Connecticut Law Tribune sued the state judicial branch to get the files unsealed.

    After more than four years of litigation, the docket sheets were made public in 2007, identifying the parties in 40 Level 1 cases and the complete files in many of the Level 2 cases, including the Buckley case.


  14. Relevant questions:

    “Can Your Denomination Regulate Religious Identity?”
    “Does Your Parachurch Organization Have a Religious Identity?”
    “Can Your Religious Celebrities Regulate Their Parachurch Organization?”
    “Do Your Denomination’s Great Men Worry More About Their Parachurch Status Than Their Denominational Identity?”
    “How You Gonna Hold Your Congregant’s Attention Without the Bright Lights of TGC?”

    (This reads like a list of previous OL post titles)


  15. Brad, ding. But to help keep the thread somewhat on task, even if the Presbyterians give us a version of Lent at least the Scots gave us golf–a good walk ruined, the sport of pilgrims, and all that.


  16. Those on the inside already do this. Irish/Polish/German/Italian/Mexican/Festive roman catholic. Dutch reformed, Scots Presby,. PCA frat boys, OPC Polyester Superfly, Genteel presbyter….


  17. sean, I’ll take your superfly over kW’s caricature of us orthodox presbys.

    see fellas, this blog stuff isn’t hard.

    unlike golf..


  18. That’s not actually the worst idea — a number of non-secular, but pluralistic, countries in the Mideast employ that method relatively successfully (relative to the Mideast, at least). I believe Lebanon and Egypt (at least up until the recent revolution) do so.

    The gist of the idea is quasi-theocracies for everybody, but everybody gets to choose their quasi-theocracy. If memory serves, they literally register their religion on their driver’s license, and different laws apply depending on the registration. So for example if you get caught with liquor and you’re a registered Muslim you go up before a Sharia Court; but if you’re registered Christian, you’re free to go.


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