I was not totally surprised when Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) took to the floor of the House of Representatives introducing House Resolution No. 397 on May 4. Forbes ranted for four and a half minutes, taking issue with President Obama’s statement in Turkey in April.
Obama said that even though our history is replete with people of Christian and Jewish faith, the United States is in fact not founded on any one religion. Our government was intentionally founded as a secular government, said Obama, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims are all free to practice their faith.
Forbes—a Baptist and graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law—posed two questions: Did we ever consider ourselves to be a Judeo-Christian nation? And if we did, when did we cease to do so? Forbes concluded that in fact America was founded as a Judeo-Christian nation, and without these religious principles America as we know it will not exist.
The speech and resolution were largely an exercise of taking historical tidbits out of context and twisting them to support a foregone conclusion. He did so with references to the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and several other key moments in American history.
The congressman quoted Americans, Jewish and Christian, who have guided our nation’s life and used the words “God” or “prayer” in a public speech. It is curious that Forbes counted Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman and John Kennedy as presidents of prayer. For some reason the praying, Sunday-School-teaching and weekly church-going Jimmy Carter is omitted from the list. Aren’t Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman and John Kennedy your faith heroes?
And I’m still a bit puzzled why Forbes took offense when President Obama preferred private prayer to some sort of public prayer display in all the hoopla around the National Day of Prayer. Forbes forgot that the words “When you pray, go into your closet, shut the door and pray” weren’t President Obama’s words. Those very words came from Forbes’ Jesus (Matthew 6:6). Personally, I’d prefer a national prayer day on which all the Christians of our nation go into their own houses for an hour and meditate on Matthew 6.
My congressman failed to ask many relevant questions in his moments on the floor—questions like: Do Jewish and Christian scriptures determine government policy for care of the poor or the stranger in our land? Do we shape a national budget around principles of scripture? Does the faith guide foreign, social, interrogation and defense policy? Did Jesus believe in the best health care possible to those prosperous enough to buy their own insurance? Do the words “In God We Trust” on currency and coin mean America has conquered greed and we, the Christian nation, benevolently target our dollars in the directions Christ calls? Are these not Christian principles that would guide a Christian nation? If we can pin down the date when we lost sight of these questions, we may have the answer to Forbes’ second question.
What causes a Baptist to declare loyalty to a Cotton Mather-like “Judeo-Christian” theocracy? Our nation has spent its history fleshing out how to both encourage its leaders to be people of faith, but at the same time not use their government to preach their personal faith or use their own religious positions for either political utilitarian gain or the oppression of another’s conscience.
I think the problem here is that the congressman loves civil religion too much. He thinks God’s name should be plastered everywhere, but seemingly hasn’t discovered that printing words like “In God We Trust” or calling prayer meetings in public halls has little redemptive power. What is so virtuous in having “In God We Trust” enshrined on the House chamber, where our congress votes yearly to spend more money on weapons systems than the rest of the world combined?
Has anyone thought that if we believe God provides for our safety, we may not need another hundred F-22s, more aircraft carriers and a larger arsenal of weapons of mass destruction? How obvious can it be that these words are meaningless, oxymoronic displays? These printed words are efforts to make us feel religious. They mask our fears and lack of trust in God. I think this may be just what Moses meant when he instructed Israel, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.” This sort of civil religion allows us to feel holy while bypassing the most difficult and demanding teachings of our Lord.
Forbes believes that personal faith is so cherished it must be publicly advertised by government (a faith bailout if you will), and that our God is so fragile that God’s name must be propped up and supported by the government. It is not enough that the church gives evidence and testimony to Christ; the government must also be in everyone’s face reminding them that we are a “Judeo-Christian” nation.
This civil religion doesn’t beckon us into deeper faith or higher spiritual living; it usually translates into “whatever my government decides must be God’s will.” Sadly, many lovers of civil religion have yet to discover that in essence, civil religion holds the power to erode a believer’s faith into a cheap patriotic experience of nationalism while stripping the gospel of its world-changing message. History—from Constantine to medieval lords, from European crusaders to German Nazis seeking support through the Catholic and Lutheran church, from Puritans burning witches to Custer slaughtering Indians to the tune of “Ode to Joy”—teaches us that civil religion has a history of being neither civil nor religious.
Rep. Forbes, perhaps God calls us to love God more, and to love seeing God’s name as a brand advertisement for our government a bit less. And as one Baptist constituent of Virginia’s Fourth District, I’d like to apologize. We didn’t gift you with a deep enough love for Virginia Baptists’ spiritual roots and Christian values.
Larry Coleman is senior pastor of Churchland Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va.