We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world – its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.
If you investigate the material basis of religious belief, you immediately confront a phenomenon that operates on many different levels. In particular circumstances and particular settings a faith may function as a guide to morality, or an aesthetic, or a social network, or a collection of cultural practices, or a political identity, or a historical tradition, or some combination of any or all of those things.
You don’t have to be a believer to see that religion genuinely offers something to its adherents (often when nothing else is available) and that what it provides is neither inconsequential nor silly.
What these persons fail to understand is that it would have been redundant to include such a phrase [separation of church and state] in the Constitution. The document as a whole embodies the view that government is not to meddle in religious matters. The federal government is given very specific, limited powers only over various secular matters. It has no powers relating to religion. The government is secular both in its origin (the consent of the governed) and its function. The government and religious institutions are completely separate and have nothing to do with each other. To insist that the Constitution doesn’t mandate separation of church and state because it doesn’t contain that phrase is more preposterous than a person who is not named as a beneficiary in a will insisting he has a claim on the estate because the will does not specifically exclude him by name.
— Dr. Ronald Lindsay, The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, December 2014
There’s a very high cost to our politics for celebrating the Trump style, but what is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness. Nonchalantly jettisoning the ethic of Jesus in favor of a political leader who embraces the ethic of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche—might makes right, the strong should rule over the weak, justice has no intrinsic worth, moral values are socially constructed and subjective—is troubling enough.
But there is also the undeniable hypocrisy of people who once made moral character, and especially sexual fidelity, central to their political calculus and who are now embracing a man of boundless corruptions. Don’t forget: Trump was essentially named an unindicted co-conspirator (“Individual 1”) in a scheme to make hush-money payments to a porn star who alleged she’d had an affair with him while he was married to his third wife, who had just given birth to their son.
….Evangelical Christians should acknowledge the profound damage that’s being done to their movement by its braided political relationship—its love affair, to bring us back to the words of Ralph Reed—with a president who is an ethical and moral wreck. Until that is undone—until followers of Jesus are once again willing to speak truth to power rather than act like court pastors—the crisis in American Christianity will only deepen, its public testimony only dim, its effort to be a healing agent in a broken world only weaken.
At this point, I can’t help but wonder whether that really matters to many of Donald Trump’s besotted evangelical supporters.
Skeptic: Do you really believe that the universe was created in six days?
Sophisticated Christian: Don’t be a silly literalist. “Six days” is a metaphor for a very long, long period of time.
Skeptic: Do you really believe that the entire earth was covered by water from a great flood?
Sophisticated Christian: Don’t be a silly literalist. When God said “the entire earth” was covered by flood waters that was metaphorical for a flood of the entire known world in which Noah lived. It was a regional flood. It was a flood of Noah’s entire world.
Skeptic: Do you believe that all the many languages on earth derive from the Tower of Babel?
Sophisticated Christian: Don’t be a silly literalist. The story of the Tower of Babel is an allegory to demonstrate the power of God in the face of humankind’s sinful arrogance.
Skeptic: Do you believe that Jonah really lived in the belly of a fish for three days?
Sophisticated Christian: Don’t be a silly literalist. This is another allegory. It was told as an allegorical prophecy of Jesus’ burial in the tomb.
Skeptic: Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born of virgin; that his father was a (holy) ghost; that he walked on water; turned water into wine; exorcised demons, sending them into a herd of pigs; healed blindness; raised people from the dead; flew to the pinnacle of the Temple with a devil; reattached a man’s severed ear to his head; and after he was publicly executed, came back to life, appeared to his former fishing buddies to share a broiled fish lunch; and finally, that he levitated off the top of a mountain into outer space where he currently sits on a golden throne as Lord and Master of the universe?
Sophisticated Christian: Of course. That is what the Bible literally says, you God-hating fool!
We are seeing countless episodes of clergy members who are having sexual relations with their (church members) in a spiritual setting; I mean, right in the church, right in the confessional. And we think that there are a lot of these clergy members who have quite honestly taken advantage of people and taken advantage of their authority or power.
It’s a very powerful thing if you are an individual who has represented yourself as sort of the conduit to heaven, you know for salvation…well then you have a lot of influence over another person’s life. You know, we see cases all the time of a clergy member saying, you know, ‘Do what I say or else you’re not going to go to heaven.’ And that’s a type of power, a type of authority that we just don’t think that anybody should have to be able to exploit for a sexual purpose.
If attorneys have a sexual relationship with a client that they represent, they lose their law license for that, you know? Same thing with a doctor. So why should it be any different for members of the clergy?
We don’t think that it is a First Amendment issue, and we’d be willing to go to court on that if we had to. But I think that there are just certain positions of authority that should not be exploited for sexual purposes, and this is one of them.
I’m not afraid and I won’t apologize for wanting to ensure that any institution around the state understands that if they have been engaged or aiding and abetting in the coverup child sexual abuse, absolutely if there are charges that can be brought, we are happy to entertain those charges and to file them. But we’re hopeful that through the process of this investigation, when we find out more about what has happened in the past, we’ll be able to prevent that from happening in the future.
In nuptial terms, our countries [Israel and the United States] celebrated their “golden anniversary” more than 20 years ago. We are now at platinum – a miracle of preciousness, radiance, and endurance. And the man who most deserves credit for this is President Donald Trump.
Under his watch, America has finally made good on its decades-old pledge to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy there. In another service to historical justice, Trump declared the Golan Heights to be Israeli territory, and in service to the security of Israel and the whole world, he withdrew the United States from a nuclear deal with Iran that was a contemporary echo of the Munich Agreement.
Trump and his senior staff have also dispensed with the useless mold of the so-called peace process, which had been bunged up by dishonesty and hypocrisy. Their administration has made clear that the Middle East must come to terms with an Israel that is proudly permanent in the land of Zion – an Israel whose Jewish roots run deepest and whose ancestral, sovereign claims are without equal.
Trump is a man of his word. On the campaign trail, he promised to protect Israel, to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, to quit the Iran nuclear deal. And he has kept each and every one of those promises – unlike previous presidents who traded principle for political expediency.
Trump is a businessman and a statesman with an instinct for justice. He sees an Israel that does whatever is necessary for its security and defense, against the odds and sweeping international consensus. These are the kind of nations and people that he likes to deal with.
Trump is also a patriot who wants to make America great again. He is constantly aware of that cost that the United States risks paying should it lose credibility. An America the projects strength and credibility rallies most world powers to it; these, in turn, respect and value its steadfast loyalty to its allies, chief among them Israel.
By rights, Trump should enjoy sweeping support among US Jews, just as he does among Israelis. That this has not been the case (so far; the 2020 election still beckons) is an oddity that will long be pondered by historians. Scholars of the Bible will no doubt note the heroes, sages, and prophets of antiquity who were similarly spurned by the very people they came to raise up.
Would it be too much to pray for a day when the Bible gets a “Book of Trump,” much like it has a “Book of Esther” celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from ancient Persia?
Although the result in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association case was entirely predictable, reading it still left me stunned. The case involves a dispute over whether a local government in the state of Maryland can tax its citizenry in order to maintain an overtly Christian World War I memorial.
With an objective Court, a decision recognizing that the state had no such coercive taxation power under the First Amendment would have been readily assured. After all, I am old enough to remember when the United States Supreme Court believed that government financially compelling free and independent individuals to endorse beliefs they find objectionable was always demeaning. When an individual’s objection to such forced extractions was not trivialized as the taking of mere offense, but a sacred objection against tyrannical government power. But, alas, that was the long-forgotten time of ….*checks notes*…. holy shit, just a year ago?
It is undeniably telling about the state of free conscience liberty that when faced with extending the same principles against forced extraction to non-religious or non-Christian citizens, the Court’s views on the issue abruptly changed. Nothing can excuse such blatantly different outcomes to the same objection, and no explanation other than outright religious bigotry against non-believers can explain the outcome in the Bladensburg cross case.
From the beginning of the Court’s plurality opinion, it becomes rather transparent that Justice Samuel Alito is seeking to diminish the objection of the non-believer against being forced to pay for a religious monument. According to Alito, the objection boils down to being merely offended at the sight of the monument. Moreover, in contrast, Justice Alito takes a great deal of time to elevate Christian moral objections regarding the views of the same monument. For example, Alito states that “[a] government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”
Using Alito’s own logic here however begs the question: Why is a country that roams the land forcing people to pay for the erection and maintenance of religious monuments not seen as being aggressively hostile to non-religious people? More importantly, as noted by the dissent, tearing down these monuments is not the only solution. All the state of Maryland had to do to conform with First Amendment principles was stop forcing people to pay for the Christian monument and instead let the upkeep be maintained by willing donators. I will never understand why an insistence on willing participants was not enough to settle this case and that the only satisfactory outcome for the cross’s radical theocratic proponents was having the authority to force unwilling others to pay.
In other words, according to the Court, the Latin Cross has transcended religion and become a secular symbol. This is literally the equivalent of saying that Jesus Christ is not a Christian figure, an idea so absurd that it becomes somewhat offensive that the Court would expect people paying attention to take this conclusion seriously.
Unfortunately, such a transparently biased outcome that favors Christianity at the expense of every other belief is becoming an all too familiar outcome, in a particularly dangerous time. As I have repeatedly stressed, we are in a unique moment in our history when a sizable portion of the population with whom religion plays no role lives alongside an equally sizable portion for whom religion plays a vital role. Disturbingly, the growth of a non-religious population that demands the same free conscience protections has come to be seen as a menacing threat to many religious people. It is now to the point that a religious zealot and bigot who just so happens to be the country’s former Attorney General can openly describe irreligious citizens as a dire threat to our country that must be stopped.
In The American Legion vs. American Humanist Association, the Supreme Court considered whether the establishment clause barred a government-sponsored display of a 40-foot cross, known as the Bladensburg Cross, on public land, as a memorial to men of Prince George’s County, Maryland, who had died in World War I. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, applying the well-known and long-derided three-part test from Lemon v. Kurtzman, had held in 2017 that the display unconstitutionally endorsed Christianity and ordered its removal from public land. Seven justices voted to reverse, so the Bladensburg Cross will remain in place. But the case produced six separate opinions, and demonstrated that the court remains starkly divided on fundamental questions about the meaning of the establishment clause. Some aspects of the legal discourse of non-establishment will change, but the standards that will emerge to govern particular questions remain up for grabs.
The Bladensburg Cross opinion appears to be sheer rationalization, in the worst meaning of that word. Those five Justices quite transparently looked for a way to reverse the Fourth Circuit, while rejecting the previous “no endorsement” test. Instead, the court opinion engages in its own form of lawyers’ history and social psychology associated with that test. The court determines that, over time, the predominant Christian meaning of the Bladensburg Cross has been replaced by one that focuses on the “sacrifice” of American soldiers in World War I.
This is a narrative purposely divorced from historical awareness. The Court claims ignorance of any religious purpose behind the choice of a cross as the memorial to soldiers who died in World War I. But commentators in the decades before and after 1920 regularly claimed that the United States was a “Christian nation.” In that cultural and political milieu, choosing a cross as a war memorial directly reinforced the concept of religious nationhood. As the court recites, the dedication ceremony’s keynote speaker proclaimed the cross as “symbolic of Calvary” and fitting tribute to those who gave their lives in a “righteous cause.”
When Jewish soldiers died in World War I, their gravestones were marked with Stars of David. But each such gravestone represented only the person buried beneath it. No one would have thought to use a Star of David as a generic memorial for all in a military cemetery. In contrast, the use of a Cross as a memorial seemed a natural default option.
The Court’s opinion admits to the Christian origin of the Bladensburg Cross, but asserts that some new public meaning has sufficiently muted the uniquely Christian character of the Latin Cross. By some magic of history and tradition, the sacrifice symbolized by the Cross has ceased to be specifically Christian and become far more inclusive. The Court never provides any evidence to support the judgment that the cross is now an historical monument with indefinite religious properties. We strongly suspect that majority preferences and ethno-centrism, not an objective social psychology of symbols, drive such choices.
For years, critics lambasted Justice O’Connor’s invocation of the “reasonable observer” as a way of measuring government endorsement of religious symbols. But the Court’s approach differs only in that it has adopted unreflectively the perspective of Christians in a political majority, without regard to the perspective of others.
The Bladensburg Cross opinion is even worse as a matter of theology. The Court invokes the image of fields of crosses for soldiers who died in the war. For Christians, a cross marking a grave signifies the unique event of Jesus’ death on Calvary and subsequent resurrection by the Father, with a promise of eternal life. The Court declares, however, that the Bladensburg Cross is fundamentally the same as the individual grave markers.
In doing so, the opinion attempts to transform the cross into a more generalized symbol of sacrifice in pursuit of noble causes. The Latin Cross, as a war memorial, symbolizes those lives given in service of our national ideals. This is heresy for Christians, because it suggests that the cross symbolizes all lives given to achieve the goals of a particular nation-state, rather than a unique, redemptive intervention by God in human history.
The Bladensburg Cross opinion thus manages to offend thoughtful Christians without ameliorating the offense to non-Christians, whose memory is supposedly included in any general war memorial. Some Christians may celebrate this decision, but it should instead be mourned as a political misappropriation of the faith’s central symbol.
We’re supposed to be a ‘Christian’ nation are we not? But we are known throughout the world as the most warlike country on Earth. And I would say almost all the wars in which we’ve been involved, have been unnecessary.
So if God’s kingdom was on Earth, we would live totally at peace with each other. Maybe that’s an individual choice too. Not just between nations not being at war, but with a friendly attitude, or a loving attitude to other people that are different than us.
My father waited until I was twenty-four. The war was on. I was in Italy. From time to time he used to send me parcels of books to read. In one of them were two in the Thinker’s Library series: Renan’s The Life of Jesus and Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. I started with The Life of Jesus and found it quite interesting; I turned to The Martyrdom and found it enthralling. . . One Man! Mankind! There was no God. God had not created Man in His own image. It was the other way round: Man had created God. And Man was all there was. But it was enough. It was the answer, and it was both totally convincing and totally satisfying. It convinced and satisfied me as I lay in my tent somewhere on the narrow strip of sand that divides Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic; and it has convinced and satisfied me ever since.
I wrote at once to my father to tell him so and he at once wrote back. And it was then that I learned for the first time that these were his beliefs, too, and that he had always hoped that one day I would come to share them.
The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.