We’re observing Religious Liberty Sunday on July 6. I struggle every year with how to handle it, and I am struggling more than usual this year.
I’m not sure why. It may be because this is a presidential election year, and I’m perhaps overly sensitive to the role that religion has played and will play in our national political dialogue.
As a Baptist who is aware of the role that Baptists played in securing the inclusion of the guarantee of religious liberty in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, I often use the opportunity afforded by Religious Liberty Sunday to emphasize the traditional Baptist emphasis on religious liberty and separation of church and state. When I come at it that way, I can be sure that I will get a few quizzical looks and even some questioning feedback.
I understand that. After all, carried to its logical conclusion, a commitment to separation of church and state means that I must be opposed to state-sponsored prayer in our public schools. That’s a hard case to make with lots of good folks. After all, how can prayer ever be a bad thing?
Besides, some might say, things have been going downhill in America ever since “they took prayer out of the schools.” Now, we have to be clear about that. Prayer has not been taken out of the schools. Anybody who wants to pray privately can certainly do so and such prayers are typically more “prayerful” than officially sanctioned pubic prayers, anyway.
Also, so far as I know, equal access rulings still allow for religious student groups to have the same access to meeting space as do other student groups, and students can pray in those gatherings.
The real issue for me, though, is whether prayer or any other religious observance is going to be voluntary or coerced. It seems to me that any teacher-led or school-sponsored prayer is by its very nature coercive–students are compelled to participate. Even if an “opt-out” provision is available, who really wants to put a third grader in the position of being singled out because of her family’s religious convictions or lack thereof? From my Baptist perspective, coercing someone to participate in a religious ritual is wrong.
Another approach I have taken is to talk about the fact that while we Christians want to be good citizens whose citizenship is informed by our Christian faith, we need to remember that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ and not to our country.
It troubles me when Christians put nationalism ahead of Christian conviction. Too many people tend to react negatively when someone out of Christian conviction expresses opposition to a particular government policy.
For example, if I say, as I honestly can, that I am opposed on Christian grounds to a preemptive strike on Iran, some folks will automatically write me off as “unpatriotic.” I am not. Indeed, I am motivated to hold such a position not only by Christian convictions but also on patriotic grounds ”
I don’t believe that we would live up to our highest ideals as a country if we engage in such an action. What really troubles me is that so many Christians would be more suspicious of me if I voice opposition to a government action than they would be if I compromise my Christian convictions.
On the other hand, I believe that we can go too far in the church if we try to avoid any acknowledgment of the need to pray for our country and to be good citizens.
Symbols are important. In recent months a Baptist church has been in the news because of the pressure that their new pastor experienced when he decided (that was the way the news accounts reported it) to remove the American and Christian flags from the sanctuary. Now, lots of churches in this nation have never had such flags in their places of worship and see no need to do so. It frankly would not bother me not to have the flags in a sanctuary in which I worship. For me, symbols of the Christian faith are most appropriate for a Christian sanctuary. Give me a cross and a Bible and a baptistery and I’m good to go.
Still, every church in which I have ever served has had the American and Christian flags in the sanctuary. I’m not bothered by it. I take the presence of the two flags to serve as a reminder that we are citizens of two kingdoms. We should pray for the earthly kingdom in which we live. But we should remember that our ultimate and primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.
I do have an issue with flag etiquette, though. Etiquette for displaying the American flag requires that it always have the position of honor, which in this case means to the right of the speaker. I frankly would be more comfortable if we placed the Christian flag in the position of honor as a way of making the point that we Christians are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I have realized an irony in my struggles. My main position is that our Christian commitment comes before and stands above and influences all other commitments, including that to our great nation. The irony is that one could make a case that in these matters I am putting being an American ahead of being a Christian. I am emphasizing the wisdom of honoring the U.S. Constitution rather than promoting the idea that the United States should be a “Christian” nation.
My position is not as ironic as it might first appear, however. I truly believe that our constitutional tradition of having no establishment of religion and of protecting the free exercise of religion protects and promotes the best kind of religious practices and matches best with the biblical way of relating to God. People are meant to come to God or not to come to God freely and without coercion. The only real faith is personal faith. The ideal is still a free church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) in a free state.
I’m clear on my principles. But this year I’m struggling with how to apply them and with what angle I should take.
Maybe I should just preach about Jesus and then shoot off some fireworks in the sanctuary!
Michael Ruffin is pastor at The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. He blogs at On The Jericho Road.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.