March 10, 2006

Official Religion In Missouri? Show Me

Some Missouri folks are concerned about legislation to make Christianity the "official religion" of Missouri. Nathan invited me to post on this. But first, I had to do a little digging. I discovered that it is not "legislation," per se, but a resolution. Here's the text:

Whereas, our forefathers of this great nation of the United States recognized a Christian God and used the principles afforded to us by Him as the founding principles of our nation; and

Whereas, as citizens of this great nation, we the majority also wish to exercise our constitutional right to acknowledge our Creator and give thanks for the many gifts provided by Him; and

Whereas, as elected officials we should protect the majority's right to express their religious beliefs while showing respect for those who object; and

Whereas, we wish to continue the wisdom imparted in the Constitution of the United States of America by the founding fathers; and

Whereas, we as elected officials recognize that a Greater Power exists above and beyond the institutions of mankind:

Now, therefore, be it resolved by the members of the House of Representatives of the Ninety-third General Assembly, Second Regular Session, the Senate concurring therein, that we stand with the majority of our constituents and exercise the common sense that voluntary prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property are not a coalition of church and state, but rather the justified recognition of the positive role that Christianity has played in this great nation of ours, the United States of America.

Five statements of historical fact, followed by the actual resolution.

The sense of many people that there is widespread anti-Christian sentiment in the US is hard for me to take seriously. Christianity is and always has been the majority religion since the European invasion of America. Likely it will be for at least a few hundred more years.

The first part of the resolution also states a fact: that most Missouri citizens are Christian by self-consideration, and most of them agree with a "common sense" that the legislators outline further.

Voluntary prayer has always been a constitutional guarantee in schools. It is true that school officials have misunderstood this from time to time, erring on one side or the other. Telling student-led groups or individuals that they cannot pray is wrong. The understanding in such a group is that there is a wish for 100% compliance within the group. As such, any single non-Christian in the room is enough to scuttle a public prayer.

For example: a sports team wants to pray before a game. If the students all agree with active assent, and the adults present keep silent, then the prayer is appropriate. If one adult speaks up, or if one student does not actively assent, then free speech has been forfeited.

Second example: if a group of students wishes to meet for a Bible study, provide its own resources, and conduct the group within the policies and rules of any student group, the group should be morally free to continue.

For adults in a school, be they staff or parents or visitors, to take anything more than a passive role in such voluntary prayer is morally problematic.

Religious displays on public property ... ah. Here, you have a wider swath of citizens. It would seem to me that dialogue (as defined in Gaudium et Spes) might be employed fruitfully. Does one active dissenter sink a whole display? I can think of the theoretical of a public display of Wicca--would it take just one zealous non-Wiccan to cease? Is there a lack of private property in a locality to prevent a religious display from being erected? Is the objection to Christmas objections about maintaining tradition--the way we've always done it? Or is it also about a sense of entitlement?

The Missouri legislators are attempting to "resolve" what might be better settled by local brains at the community level. But one of the prices of having a legal-oriented society is that decisions tend to be made at the highest possible level, rather than the lowest. That such a resolution needs to be considered shows that American society has progressed to a post-civility state. That opponents of such a resolution have seen fit to misrepresent it is possibly supportive of the sentiment that led to its drafting in the first place.

Two generations ago, such a resolution would have been irrelevant. And today? Today, it has widened the chasm between neighbors and citizens a little bit more. That strikes me as being a little bit less American, a little bit less Christian.