GOVERNMENT AND RELIGION

Norman L. Parks

The politicized Christian right wing in America sees itself under siege by atheists and the secular world, and feels that it is under God's order to over-cane the world. How? By imposing religion on government and through government on the people by legislation and taxation.

The fusion of government and religion has been a feature of almost all political systems from ancient times to the present, whether Hebrew, Persian, Greek, Roman, medieval Europe, or modern England. Even Stalin in the midst of World War II found it advisable to revive the Orthodox hierarchy. What the Christian right in the United States wholly overlooks is that Jesus drew a sharp line of separation between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," he said, "and unto God the things that are God's."

The present day religious right are wiser. They want to put Bible reading and prayer back into the schedule of government schools. They would have both state and federal governments to help fund tuition costs and student transportation to church-sponsored schools, to libraries, day-care centers, and nursing homes. Some would even prefer that all education of children be handed over to the church.

The religious right has powerful allies in government. President Bush supports an amendment to the constitution to put prayer into the public school curriculum. His budget for 1993 includes $500 million for tuition grants to private and church-operated schools. The chief justice of the Supreme Court would rewrite the First Amendment to say that government can aid religion in any way it sees fit short of making one church the official religion.

The Supreme Court is expected to address the issue by told-summer in a case now before it involving public prayer in a Massachusetts high school graduation ceremony. Bush instructed the Attorney General to intervene in this case against the Jewish plaintiff, asking the court to abandon the tests of constitutionality established in the Lemon case and support the view of the chief Justice. Active in Washington is Lamar Alexander, member of Bush's cabinet and former governor of Tennessee, who is pushing for a measure to provide government grants to poor and middle class parents so that they can choose to send their children to private and religious schools instead of public schools.

Standing against this whole movement are two veteran citizen organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The first - named does battle along the entire stretch of civil liberties protected by the Constitution, religion being only one concern. AU, which draws its support largely from the Protestant population, is devoted exclusively to maintaining a solid wall of separation between church and state. As one who has been a member of ACLU for over forty years and a member of AU since its organization, I know of no religion case before the Supreme Court on which the two organizations disagreed. To call the ACLU "atheistic," as Buff Scott does in his recent article in Examiner, he would have to extend the criticism to the AU, whose president for the past eight years has been a Baptist minister.

Since Mr. Scott does not appear to be well informed about the religious cases before the court, I would like to remind him that the tests established in the Lemon case would bar a high school official from creating a period in the schedule day for prayer or Bible reading as an expression of religious worship. This would be a prohibited "establishment of religion," even if children are told that it is purely voluntary and they can go to the library to study instead. Such an enforced choice would keep the children in their seats to escape being called unbelievers.

Let us face reality. May a child in any public school pray during the school day? Of course he can. There is no prohibition against it. Prayer, we must remind ourselves, is always exclusively the act of a single person. A period set aside for prayer does not alter that fundamental fact. Jesus did not think highly of public-display prayer or a formal group affair. He thought it best to enter the privacy of one's closet and there pray alone. Children should be taught that their private closet exists right where they are.

If there is anything distinctive about Christianity, it is the fact that it is wholly voluntary. Pure Christianity is totally devoid of power or authority other than the authority of the Christ. In the primitive Christian faith, nobody, whether elders, or deacons or anyone else, has the authority to make decisions for others. Whenever religion is merged with government, power thrives and Jesus said power must not be so among his followers. The tragic condition in the Middle East lies in the fact that religion and government are merged.

The failure of religion to flourish in England, France, or Germany is heavily rooted in the existence of established religion. There the church buildings stand largely empty of worshippers. The fact that religion flourishes in the United States is found in the fact that churches are compelled to stand on their own feet. Americans owe a great debt to the ACLU and AU for their long fight to preserve intact the First Amendment.

Unfortunately there is almost continuous struggle in both Washington and the fifty state capitals, waged by religious groups, to divert public funds into church enterprises. In 1991-92 in Tennessee, when Head Start and primary education programs were struggling, the state pumped $27,000,000 into one private and 34 church colleges. The original bill was jammed through the lower house by one vote with the balcony jammed by church college students noisily clamoring for the bill. The more that organized religion adopts prevailing cultural and secular patterns, the less vital it is in rendering unto God the things that are God's. Only the Adventists in Tennessee keep a wall between themselves and the state.

Lipscomb and Freed Hardeman have outstretched hands to the state just like all the other church-related colleges. The church colleges in Texas, including ACU, have been wildly successful in their money quests at Austin, claiming that the State of Texas is deeply indebted to them for assuming part of the state's educational burden. They have reversed Jesus: Caesar must render unto them the things that are theirs!