Sunday, February 24, 2008



Dr. Harry EmersonFosdick




“MY FAITH HAS FOUND A TESTING PLACE”
Hymn words by David Albert Farmer
Tune: Landas

My faith has found a testing place.
Forget another’s creed.
My faith is in the God of life.
The law of love I heed.

REFRAIN: I need to bril-liant argument;
Still less, dogmatic plea___.
It is enough that God is real
As Jesus helped us see.

The Bible is not free from flaw,
And not my Deity.
I take from Jesus this advice:
“The truth will make you free.”

REFRAIN

I seek the truth in all I view.
What’s false and what is fact?
And when beyond the tangible,
My intellect’s in tact.

REFRAIN




I.

One of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s most famous, AND CONTROVERSIAL, sermons was entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” More about Fosdick and that sermon in a bit. What I want his sermon title to do for us today is to push us to answer his question anew in a substantially different world situation--not that Fosdick’s world was trouble-free or threat-free, but, perhaps, religions as culprits in the harm to humans and nations weren’t as obvious as they are today.
I have already tipped my hat. Religion and religions can be bad news. People, throughout history, have done horrendous acts in the names of their “God” or their gods and goddessess. This continues right into the present, and Christians are as bad or worse than any of the others. Thankfully, it’s not all the Christians or all the Jews or all the Muslims or all the Hindus who are at fault; typically, certain radical fundamentalists in many of the world’s religions are behind the dangers to anyone not in their ranks.
Let me be quick to say that the words, “conservative” and “fundamentalist” are not synonymous. Let me also stress that most of the dangerous fundamentalists follow leaders whom they revere and whom may also fear. The followers of these key leaders may not have done any detailed personal study of the source of the fundamentals to which the “truly faithful” are supposed to adhere in their respective group, but they believe with their lives that the leader’s belief is correct; and if the leader believes it, whatever it is, it’s good enough for them.
In the minds of the followers, the leader’s words become comingled with the words of the Deity/deities to such a degree that there is no distinction. Eventually, if not instantly, the leader is taken to have the same authority as the group’s God or gods. The leader, himself or herself, becomes a symbol for the Divine/divine, and in some cases through the years, she or he has been granted divine status by adherents. Just think about David Koresh, Sun Myung Moon, Elijah Muhammad, and, most recently, Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda.
Christian fundamentalists have not made any humans divine, but they have often made certain objects or causes divine. I believe, for example, that I have known many Christian fundamentalists through the years who, for all practical purposes, deify and worship the Bible--in particular, the King James Version of the Bible. One of my theology professors, the late Dale Moody, called this “bibliolotry,” Bible worship.
In Christian tradition, the tension between fundamentalists and moderates or progressives has gone on since the time of Jesus. While Christianity did not exist during the lifetime of Jesus, the foundation for the conflict was set in Jesus’ own experience. Sadly, instead of learning from Jesus’ troubles, many of those who claim to be his followers simply propagate what he himself resisted.
Jesus was a Jewish theological moderate. He loved his religion, and he highly valued the teachings of his beloved Judaism. However, Jesus believed that unless the ancient teachings could be applied in the newer settings, newer contexts, that the effectiveness of those important teachings would die. That seriously irritated the Jewish fundamentalists of his day.
The fundamentalists of Jesus’ day were, among others, the scribes and the Pharisees. If you read the various accounts of the life of Jesus preserved in the four Gospels, you can’t find anyone whom he criticized more regularly or more staunchly than the fundamentalists, the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus’ issue with these fellow Jews had to do precisely with their belief that in order to be true to the ancient teachings each one had to be followed to the letter. As a matter of fact, many of the ancient principles had become laws, and there were Jews who believed that if religious laws were broken dire consequences should result.
Jesus became intensely frustrated with the fundamentalists because he said that it is possible to keep all of the religious laws to the letter and still end up with no connection to or relationship with God whatsoever. This was blasphemy to the ears of the scribes and Pharisees.
To be clear, the fundamentalists of Jesus’ day believed that if they kept the laws to the letter, they were guaranteed a right relationship with God--which is to say, they had earned divine approval and divine blessings. Jesus was raining on their parade when he insisted that keeping the ancient laws to the letter might prove nothing at all about one’s spirituality or one’s relationship with God. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, Jesus decried a religion of rules and insisted on a relationship-based religion.
People who get all caught up in religious rules-keeping, which is the major method of living out fundamentalism, might keep the rules and miss God entirely. This is what Jesus thought was going on with the scribes and the Pharisees. Here are two examples as recalled by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. These are words attributed to Jesus:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your God in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your God who sees in secret will reward you.

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your God who is in secret; and your God who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:1-6 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).

The “hypocrites” to whom Jesus referred in both of these scenarios were none other than the scribes and the Pharisees, and they knew exactly to whom Jesus was referring with his not-too-subtle barbs.
This was offense and affront enough to the fundamentalists of Jesus’ day, but what really, really got him in trouble with the fundamentalists was his audacity that we’ll take up in a moment.




II.

Jesus’ audacity: his open warnings to those who heard him teach and preach that keeping a religious regulation to a tee didn’t mean the expectation of that principle had been upheld or honored. He had a way of tossing out one of the ancient religious laws and saying there was a new way of honoring the law that didn’t involve keeping it literally.
Here’s one example:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment (Matt 5:21-22 NRSV).

Well, you can see at once what the problem was! It was much easier to avoid murdering someone than to avoid letting your anger get out of hand. Jesus was saying that anger uncontrolled--not just any anger, but anger uncontrolled--which could lead to harming a sister or a brother, was also a violation of God’s standards.
Here’s another example of something Jesus said that distressed greatly the fundamentalists of his day:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also (Matt 5:39 NRSV).

Ouch! It’s much easier to think we’re in good with God if we don’t hurt someone who hurts or offends us any more than she or he has hurt or offended us. Then, Jesus comes meddling along and says, “If you want to honor God, you get out of the retaliating business altogether.” That bleeding heart!
Back now to Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick and his famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Just being able to call the name of this great preacher is uplifting for me. Fosdick made thinking and being on a faith journey compatible. If you know the words to the hymn, “God of Grace, God of Glory,” you know something about Fosdick, at least. He penned those stirring words!
Fosdick was born in 1878 in Buffalo, New York. He graduated from Colgate University and Union Theological Seminary in New York. His first pastorate was the First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey. From there, he became the minister at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City. It was in that pulpit that he would preach what might well have been his most famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in 1922. Fosdick had begun to insist in his preaching that one did not have to believe literally in the teachings of the Bible and did not have to embrace doctrines such as the virgin birth as proof of being a Christian in good standing.
Christian fundamentalists opposed him, some with zeal. One of his opponents was none other than William Jennings Bryan who spoke in favor of fundamentalism throughout the Scopes Monkey Trial. Bryan, however, was by no means Fosdick’s only rival.
In response to growing, open opposition to his views--and don’t think everyone in his congregation loved what he was saying--Fosdick preached this noted sermon. He defended progressive Christianity, which he called “modernism.”
By this time, Fosdick’s fame was spreading, and a publicist set out to make Fosdick more famous. This publicist mailed out thousands of copies of the sermon to churches throughout the United States.
Fosdick soon moved to pastor the Park Avenue Baptist Church, also in New York City, where he would meet, of all people, the richest man in the United States, John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller loved his pastor and in time built for him a new church--a cathedral, really, that came to be called the Riverside Church. This is where Fosdick preached from 1930 until he retired in 1946.
He was a wildly popular pastor that people often stood in long lines to get to hear on Sunday mornings. Can you imagine? Leonard Sweet, writing in The Christian Century, shared these tidbits:

These were the days when Christians literally beat down the doors to get into church. “Crowds Smash Door: Near Riot to Hear Fosdick” ran the headlines of a 1924 newspaper. It was not uncommon for people to wait in front of the church for more than two hours in what they called the “bread line” so that they could be fed at Fosdick’s table. Church members were ticketed to ensure seating, but others had to find fragments of nourishment where they could, with some sneaking into already packed balconies through fire escapes and other evasive subterfuges, and with Fosdick’s own seat filled by a standee as soon as he entered the pulpit. The carnationed, gray-gloved ushers, or what Fosdick termed his “Guard of Honor,” were really the city’s best-dressed bouncers and bodyguards. “We had a hectic time yesterday in the ushering business,” one memorandum from a head usher reported. “One lady fainted. Two ladies crawled under the ropes on the pleas of wanting to go away and then beat down the center aisle.”

Dr. Fosdick was the preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where--by the way--Marge Grant’s father studied with him. Fosdick taught many young preachers that preaching was hard work; some credit him with the formula: “an hour in the study for every minute of preaching.” His preaching method was often called the project method. He was very critical of those preachers who preached, more or less, verse by verse from the Bible assuming that all their hearers understood the original context (any more than did those who preached from it!) or cared about such vital details as who the Jebusites were. He further angered fundamentalist preachers when he would teach that the Bible was only one possible source of potential truth a preacher might call upon to help hearers find a message that would support them in living more fully than they had before they heard a sermon.
Along with his preaching and pastoral work and his seminary teaching, Dr. Fosdick was a prolific writer. Besides several top-selling books in the collection of forty that he authored, he wrote articles for Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, and even the Ladies’ Home Journal. Time magazine featured him on its cover both in 1925 and in 1930. His “National Vespers Hour” ran on NBC for nineteen years, and he was heard regularly in seventeen countries outside the U.S.
Beyond his pro-modernist stance, Fosdick was quite the pastoral preacher. He really helped his hearers deal with the struggles of their lives in such a way that religion could be a positive force if understood correctly. He allowed his own emotional challenges to help him care for those who listened to him and read what he wrote.
Almost certainly, his attentiveness to people who hurt had something to do with his struggles with depression. He first had to combat depression in what resulted in a breakdown while he was in college. He had to drop out for a while to get his bearings, but from all indications he was never completely free from its potential intrusion.
Fosdick’s biographer, Professor Robert Moats Miller of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, referred to this initial emotional crisis for Harry Emerson Fosdick as a “severe neurotic reactive depression.” Fosdick would acknowledge later in his autobiography, The Living of These Days, that the shadows of depression continued to hang over him from time to time across the years.
One of your former pastors, Robert Fletcher Smith, read in one of my sermons of my admiration of Dr. Fosdick. He sent me a photograph of Fosdick taken when Fosdick was the guest preacher at a church Reverend Smith served before coming to this one. I treasure that picture and keep it beside my computer keyboard in my office here.
Dr. Fosdick died in 1969. He was hated by some, a hero to many. The question he asked in that great sermon of his must be answered by modernists, progressives today. I believe in looking back, the fundamentalists of Fosdick’s era did not win--maybe because of Fosdick! In our time, I think they are winning.




III.

We hear the words “fundamentalists” and “fundamentalism” all the time now, but these words and their relatives are only about a hundred years old if we think in terms of how they apply to segments of Christianity and other religions. Despite the fact that the tensions between liberals and literalists have been around as long as Jesus’ teachings have been around, this name for literalists is relatively modern.
One Roman Catholic church historian says the development of the fundamentalist movement has had three distinct phases. The first phase lasted from the 1890’s until the end of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. The second phase saw it lose ground as far as much public attention was concerned, but it certainly wasn’t dead; this phase was from 1925 until the 1970’s. The third phase began in the ’70’s when greater prominence was accorded the fundamentalist cause not without the help of American politics; we are still living in phase three, which, without a doubt, is fundamentalism’s most powerful phase to date.
About a hundred years ago at a little seminary up the road here--some of you may have heard of Princeton Theological Seminary--Professors B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge among others formally formulated what came to be called “Princeton Theology.” Perhaps a quote from Professor Hodge summed it up. We must, he wrote, “subject our feeble reason to the mind of God as revealed in His Word, and by His Spirit in our inner life.” This was the foundation for the modern Christian fundamentalist movement.
In 1909, two wealthy oil-tycoon-brothers, Milton Stewart and Lyman Stewart, underwrote the writing and mass mailing of twelve pamphlets entitled “The Fundamentals.” In the preface to the pamphlet-set, these words were written:

...God moved two Christian laymen to set aside a large sum of money for issuing twelve volumes that would set forth the fundamentals of the Christian faith, and which were to be sent free of charge to ministers of the gospel, missionaries, Sunday school superintendents, and others engaged in aggressive Christian work throughout the English speaking world.

The “fundamentals” being proposed and defended in these pamphlets, written by some sixty-four highly respected conservative biblical scholars and theologians, were essentially these five:

1. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures were fully inspired by God, God-breathed they would say, and are therefore infallible--completely without error.
2. Jesus was divine and born of a virgin.
3. It was only in the shedding of Jesus’ blood that there would be a sacrifice sufficient to please God and to allow God, therefore, not to hold humanity’s sin against us.
4. Jesus’ body literally rose from a tomb.
5. Jesus will reappear on earth at the end of time to bring history to its close.

I don’t know of anyone who doubts that Dr. Fosdick was taking on “the fundamentals” in his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” It may have been Fosdick, in fact, who coined the word, “fundamentalist” as applied to an extreme theological conservative.
Near the beginning of his sermon, Fosdick said:

Already all of us must have heard about the people who call themselves the Fundamentalists. Their apparent intention is to drive out of the...churches men and women of liberal opinions. I speak of them the more freely because there are no two denominations more affected by them than the Baptist and the Presbyterian. We should not identify the Fundamentalists with the conservatives. All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists. The best conservatives can often give lessons to the liberals in true liberality of spirit, but the Fundamentalist program is essentially illiberal and intolerant.

“Illiberal.” “Intolerant.”
Fosdick had problems with those who taught that Christians are of necessity enemies of science. There is no need for that, he preached.
As much as he differed with their teachings, their methods seemed to disturb him more:

If a man is a genuine liberal, his primary protest is not against holding these opinions, although he may well protest against their being considered the fundamentals of Christianity. This is a free country and anybody has a right to hold these opinions or any others if he is sincerely convinced of them. The question is—Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship? The Fundamentalists say that this must be done. In this country and on the foreign field they are trying to do it. They have actually endeavored to put on the statute books of a whole state binding laws against teaching modern biology. If they had their way, within the church, they would set up in Protestantism a doctrinal tribunal more rigid than the pope’s.

History keeps repeating itself, doesn’t it? I mean, it really does. Can you imagine anyone trying to get law passed stipulating what science teachers may teach in the pubic school classrooms? We would have thought that such tactics would have been out after the first time anyone tried it. But Fosdick knew of a case where it was being attempted, and today we have more evidence than we can keep up with that fundamentalist Christians are trying to have established through the laws of the land what science teachers may teach our children, and we well know that the fullness of scientific discovery would not be included in such curriculums.
Getting toward the end of his sermon, Fosdick asks a very compelling question:

When will the world learn that intolerance solves no problems? This is not a lesson which the Fundamentalists alone need to learn; the liberals also need to learn it. Speaking, as I do, from the viewpoint of liberal opinions, let me say that if some young, fresh mind here this morning is holding new ideas, has fought his way through, it may be by intellectual and spiritual struggle, to novel positions, and is tempted to be intolerant about old opinions, offensively to condescend to those who hold them and to be harsh in judgment on them, he may well remember that people who held those old opinions have given the world some of the noblest character and the most rememberable service that it ever has been blessed with, and that we of the younger generation will prove our case best, not by controversial intolerance, but by producing, with our new opinions, something of the depth and strength, nobility and beauty of character that in other times were associated with other thoughts.

That would be the ideal, wouldn’t it. Wouldn’t life be grand if the new ideas in our world could be presented in such a way so as not to offend those in former times who believed differently largely because no one knew any better? The arrogance of accomplishment and achievement are definitely unattractive. At the same time, we all know by now that simply being kind and thoughtful and genteel even will not always get us either a hearing or respect.
One of the realities that I personally had to learn in my dealings with the fundamentalists in Southern Baptist life is that lots of them see no value or virtue in being kind or nice. Many of my ilk were stunned at the level of anger and hatred the fundamentalists hold for liberals, which is why many of their most noted leaders today are some of the angriest folk you would ever want to avoid.
Dr. Fosdick wasn’t thrilled with how either side was conducting itself, as you heard. He said that both sides should share a

sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs. If, during the war, when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you restrain your indignation? You said, “What can you do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion?” So, now, when from the terrific questions of this generation one is called away by the noise of this Fundamentalist controversy, he thinks it almost unforgivable that men should tithe mint and anise and cummin, and quarrel over them, when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith. . . .

Fosdick was convinced that the fundamentalists would not win, and in his day they didn’t; at least, I don’t think they did. In our day, I’m not so sure. It’s not inevitable that the moderates and modernists will win.
The fundamentalists still want to put us out of business, whether you see that or not or whether you like to hear about it or not. Can you imagine a world where they have won and where liberals aren’t allowed freedom of thought and expression? Well, my dear friends, that kind of place has existed before; indeed, such places exist today.
The really scary part is that it could exist again in Christian land in a so-called democracy. Well? Shall the fundamentalists win?

Sunday, February 10, 2008




The Reverend Olympia Brown




KEEPING SYMBOLS SYMBOLIC

I.
I well remember that frigid Sunday afternoon in February in the late 1970’s. I was serving my first pastorate. A master’s student at Southern Seminary in Louisville, many of us drove the 70 or so miles from Louisville to Madison, Indiana, to work in small American Baptist churches in the area near the “Proving Grounds,” where military weaponry was tested, and, thus, frequent loud sounds, planes flying all around, and senses of the earth moving beneath one’s feet were common. In the beautiful little church building of Hebron Baptist Church, where I was the pastor, we had a steel cable stretching from one side of our lovely sanctuary to the other. I was told that this was to keep the building from splitting apart as a result of the sounds and movement from the Proving Ground.
That little building sat smack dab in the middle of two strikingly different landscapes: a cemetery and a soybean field. It didn’t have a baptistry in it. Having grown up in the Southern Baptist tradition, I’d never seen a Baptist church without a baptistry in it, but we didn’t have our own. When we needed to perform a baptism, we had to borrow a baptistry from a neighboring Baptist church. This caused more of a problem than one might think.
We couldn’t do our baptisms while another church was having own its services so we needed to request the use of the borrowed building and baptistry at some alternate time--usually on a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon since I drove over on weekends. Most of the time, we ended up using the host church’s facilities on a Sunday afternoon since the thought was that no one from their congregation would have to make a special trip over to let us in and such. It was a small, trusting town, and churches could stay unlocked for a few hours without threat of robbery or vandalism. Even so, someone from the host church had to run the water into the baptistry pool, and in the wintertime the water had to be heated.
The happy Sunday afternoon came--a young pastor getting to baptize two young ladies in the church, sisters, who were 12 and 14 years old. Their family was there--parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles--along with a a few school chums; all of our members who were in town were there too. After all, this was a celebrative occasion for our small, struggling congregation: two young ladies saying in their early teens that they wanted to be followers of Jesus and formally become members of the congregation. Those who had taught them in Sunday School from the “Cradle Roll” on were beaming in our small crowd.
Those of you who don’t know anything about baptism by immersion, pay careful attention now. What I’m about to tell you will not seem like such a big deal if the only baptism you’ve ever experienced or observed is sprinkling; the dynamics are entirely different!
Baptism by immersion, the “Baptist way,” is done in a pool of some sort. Before there were church buildings with baptistries, people got baptized into the Baptist tradition in creeks and lakes and rivers. Jesus himself was baptized by immersion in the Jordan River by his cousin, John the Baptist. The earliest Christians were baptized in bodies of water--preferably moving water to help signify the spiritual life. Those early Christians were baptized at daybreak on Easter morning; there was only one time for baptism in a year, and if you decided to pursue baptism at any point after Easter this year, you had to wait until Easter next year. We haven’t stuck to that very closely; nor have we followed their practice of baptizing those new to the faith in the nude, symbolizing that they were babes on their spiritual journeys. I for one am more glad about that than I have words to tell you!
OK, back to that freezing February afternoon in Madison, Indiana, and the baptism service for the newest members of the Hebron Baptist Church. Everything was wonderful until I stepped into the waters of baptism wearing my only pair of dark dress pants and a white shirt--no socks or shoes, of course. Who-o-o-o-o-o. It was freezing cold. Someone from the host church had remembered to fill the pool with water, but she or he had forgotten to heat it.
I could barely talk or move. In order for me to get the girls placed so that the congregants could see them, I had to stand in water up to my chest. The poor girls obediently followed my lead; I didn’t say anything about how cold it was, and they just assumed that the discomfort of ice cold water was part of the price they had to pay to follow Jesus. They, ultimately, had it worse than I since I had to immerse them. They couldn’t be “Baptist baptized” unless their bodies went all the way under the water. I made certain, as I have with the many people I’ve baptized through the years, that they went all the way under water before they came back up! My what troopers they were.
Someone in my congregation had to help me out of the baptistry as I had lost all feeling in my feet and legs. I envisioned being taken off to the local hospital to be treated for two-thirds of a frozen body, but I thawed quickly. That was the one and only time in my ministry at which I wished I’d been a part of a sprinkling or pouring tradition instead of being a full-fledged proponent of baptism by immersion.
Since Silverside Church is, for all practical purposes, a non-denominational church, welcoming folks from all religious backgrounds and no religious background at all, you neither see nor hear about baptism around here to any great degree. Even though our church retains a connection to American Baptist Churches/USA, we don’t believe baptism is necessary for confirming one’s willingness to join us on our seekers’ journey focused on Jesus or necessary for being a member of this church. Officially, anyone who joins the church has the right to be baptized as a symbol of her or his commitment or recommitment to a seeker’s spiritual quest, but very few choose it. The problems with baptism in many places are twofold: 1) it has been required, forced upon folks; and 2) its symbolic nature or character has been forgotten.
As to the symbolic nature of baptism, those groups that require it--whether infant baptism or baptism by immersion--have said that we humans are sin-stained and that until we are touched or covered by the waters of baptism we have no possibility for a relationship with God in this world or the next. That is a theological misconception of the highest order. So any baptism that has ever been done in the 172- or 173-year history of Silverside Church has been done as a symbol of some deeper spiritual reality; it was never the water that made God give God’s OK to anybody.
A hallmark of Baptists, and we have plenty of the good aspects of being Baptist in our tradition, is a commitment to the notion that ordinances are symbolic. Ordinances are akin to Roman Catholic sacraments. Baptists have only two, and Catholics have seven, I think. The Baptist ordinances are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are acts in which we participate because we believe that they help us acknowledge and express deeper spiritual realities.
In the case of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, the symbols, the bread and the cup, remind us that Jesus lost his life for telling the truth about God’s love. The bread symbolizes his body, and the wine or juice represent his blood; some traditions teach that the bread becomes Jesus’ actual body, and the wine becomes Jesus’ actual blood, which the faithful are required to eat and drink. That is gruesome beyond words.
Baptism symbolizes death to an old way of life and the beginning of a new way of living based on the teachings and the example of Jesus as best we are able to understand them. The water itself, though, has nothing literally to do with one’s relationship to God or with one’s spiritual state or progress.
When young people grow up in this church, as many of you have and as we are seeing right now, baptism should be offered to them as a part of their spiritual rite of passage. I don’t baptize babies; as far as I know that’s never been done in this church because of its Baptist heritage. But I do find baptism meaningful, and I would encourage anyone, young person or adult, who wishes to mark the beginning of or a major new turn along the spiritual pathway to experience it. I don’t think it should be required of anyone, but if you decide you wish to be baptized, Don Ekquist and I PROMISE: no freezing water!


II.
I said earlier that I’d get back to Jesus’ baptism, and so here I am. John the Baptist was a fiery preacher, and he asked people to be baptized by him as a sign that they were giving themselves entirely to God even as they repented of any wrong or evil that had been in their lives up to the point of their baptism.
Now, Jesus was an amazingly good guy--at least in the eyes of his followers and admirers. Most of those who didn’t like him or what he was about still had to agree that he was a pretty good guy in terms of morals and ethics. Of course, if you don’t like someone you can find fault with her or his way of living no matter how pristine it is. The current intra-party criticisms from one presidential candidate to the next is proof of this.
The thing is, Jesus getting baptized by John as if he were repenting throws us off. Jesus was sold out to God all the way, and he lived his life in complete service to others honoring God at every turn. Why would he have been baptized by John under these circumstances?
Well, either Jesus saw himself as someone who needed to repent of something and/or he affirmed at least a part of what baptism meant for John. We have this seriously flawed notion that Jesus always thought about himself in precisely the same ways we think about him. We make a huge deal of Jesus’ lifelong moral perfection, and I would be one of those who’d say he was that indeed. Yet, how I think about him living out his life and he looked at himself may be completely unrelated.
“Repentance” doesn’t have to mean acknowledging moral depravity; the word itself literally means an about face. The Hebrew scriptures teach that even God repented. So if God Godself can repent, then certainly Jesus, God’s servant, can also repent, can make a decision to walk in a direction he had not previously walked, can leave old values behind and take on new values.
Jesus himself is said to have told those to whom he felt closest that when he came up out of the baptismal waters of the River Jordan he saw a dove and that the dove symbolized for him the presence and the approval of God; it was as if God said to him, “You are my beloved child, and in you I am well pleased.”
I say this for several reasons, but the most significant one is that I will have no part of causing any one of any age to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with her or him and that she or he has to be saved from sin in this world in order to escape hell in the next world. There isn’t anything fundamentally or inherently wrong with anyone in a spiritual sense. This isn’t to say that we always avoid doing the wrong thing, but making those choices doesn’t mean that we are vile or dirty or disgusting in God’s eyes as some traditions try to teach their adherents. We also know that there are those people who sell themselves out to evil rather than to God or good, but that wasn’t how they came into the world; and that’s not how they have to remain. In any case, you don’t have say that you are or ever have been a bad or an evil person in order to participate in baptism.
I was only 7 years old when I was baptized, and my pastor whom I loved dearly, the late Jack Whitson, told me what our church and most of our denomination affirmed for any one of any age seeking baptism. “David, to become a Christian you have to acknowledge your sin.” Oh, mercy, I searched my little seven-year-old soul for all of the sin and evil that had to have been down there because that’s what my pastor had told me. He wasn’t pushing me or pressing me in any way, and I don’t agree for a minute now with what I thought then; but I kept looking until I found it.
Not meaning to sound spiritually advanced or elite, I have to tell you that there wasn’t much sin to find at the age of 7 in Halls Crossroads. I don’t know about you people who grew up near the big cities like Philadelphia; maybe the evil gets you early on! But there just wasn’t much evil to latch on to in Halls Crossroads.
My pastor told me one had to acknowledge her or his sin in order to “get saved.” You couldn’t get baptized until you asked God to save you from sin so I decided to find it so that I could be baptized.
Finally, it began to come to me, and I realized what a despicable sinner I was. I had stolen the piece of bubble gum at the grocery store that time; I had taken six pieces instead of the five pieces for a nickel that I’d paid for. When I got home, my daddy saw pieces of bubble gum and made me get back in the car with him. He sped back to the grocery store and made me tell the cashier what I’d done. Fortunately, she was very nice and didn’t have me thrown into juvenile detention. I can tell you that was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
It was becoming clearer to me. I was a little sinner after all. I didn’t always get along with my sister. I didn’t always like to share my toys with friends and neighbors. Oh, yes. It was there--the evidence that I was a sinner. I had to acknowledge it and get baptized or God wouldn’t love me, I thought.
That’s kind of sad, but that’s what tons of kids go through who come up in conservative traditions--Protestant, Catholic, or other. I’m one of the lucky ones. I outgrew that horribly negative way of looking at myself, but, sadly, many don’t. Most don’t. Once they’ve been taught that they are sin-stained and must be baptized in order to wash away their sins, they are never free from that negative sense of self. Even after they are baptized, many still see themselves essentially as sinners.
I’m so happy that the young people who are growing up in this church have the gift of teachers like Bonnie Zickefuss and Martha Brown and Robin Ferranto and Dot Siegfried; Silverside kids never have to outgrow the belief that there is something essentially wrong with them spiritually or otherwise. They know that God loves them as they are, and they know that God’s love for them allows them, encourages them, to love themselves fully--now and throughout their lives. It is the lure of God’s love that draws them to begin a more “grown up” walk along the spiritual pathway as opposed to a fear of having God not love them. There is no way God could or would withhold love from any one of us; that’s an impossibility.
When Baptists were born during the reign of King James I in England, his beloved Anglicanism, which was a Protestant version of “adapted Catholicism,” was the rage throughout his country as he wanted it to be. While King James was officially “tolerant” of those who weren’t Anglican like he, the movement itself turned out not to be, and the King evidently ignored how non-Anglicans were abused by the Anglicans whose descendants in this country would come to be called “Episcopalians.”
Some of the King’s subjects rebelled against the persecutions they were experiencing at the hands of the Anglicans who were the state church folk. A small group of those who were dissatisfied with religious life in England went to Holland, a country widely known to be religiously and otherwise tolerant. There, in an atmosphere of freedom, they began to read the Bible for themselves without any state church monitors looking over their shoulders, and they decided that though they had all as far as I know been sprinkled as infants this didn’t count for them as baptism, which they said was something that an individual had to choose for herself of himself at an age when she or he could make such choices.
If you were baptized as an infant in one of the several traditions that practice the rite, I’m not in any way trying to minimize what may now be a meaningful fact for you. I do want you to know that the group of English men and women who had left England to go to Holland would have some in their number come back to England where they would establish the first Baptist church on English soil. In that little church, there was rejoicing when someone decided for herself or himself to be baptized. They would endure more suffering back in their homeland, but their thinking was now clear on that issue; and Baptists of any stripe would never back away from the opportunity of baptizing those who themselves ask to be baptized.


III.
The sermon to which I’m responding today, and it has already been in the background of much that I’ve said, is one called, of all things, “Baptism.” The preacher was Olympia Brown.
Olympia Brown was not the first woman to be ordained to the Christian ministry in the United States; that honor or designation went to Antoinette Brown Blackwell. Blackwell was ordained by a local congregation, the Congregational Church in South Butler, New York, on September 15, 1853. Olympia Brown, however, was the first woman in U.S. history to be ordained by a denominational body; she was ordained almost a decade later, in June of 1863, by the Northern Universalist Association in Canton, New York.
In an age when higher education for women was not widely affirmed or available, Brown’s parents pushed her to go far in her educational endeavors, and she did. While a student at Antioch College in Ohio, ironically, she heard a sermon by Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the only officially ordained woman in the U.S. at that point.
Olympia Brown was stirred by the experience, and she later recalled that hearing Blackwell preach had a major role in her decision to enter the ministry professionally. She went on to become a Universalist pastor and an eloquent spokesperson for women’s rights in this country. Olympia Brown, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was a part of a committee of twenty-three who produced the Woman’s Bible, a tool that set out to refute the claims of those who were using poor biblical interpretation as a tool of injustice--particularly the injustice of repressing women.
In the mid-1980’s, I didn’t know any better than to write a letter to a big publisher and tell the publisher that I had an idea for a book. I didn’t follow any protocol; I didn’t send a summary or a sample chapter--none of that. Having taught women in my preaching classes at Southern Seminary, I knew that women needed to know more about how other women preached and not just about how men preached or what men only thought about the art of preaching.
That letter led to a several-year relationship with Harper and Row Publishers and its San Francisco branch in particular, which is where any books published with a connection to religion were handled. Harper liked my idea of a book giving an historical overview of the preaching of women in American history, including sample sermons. I set out to complete my research with Harper’s encouragement; if I could produce the right stuff, I had a publisher.
I loved it, and eventually, in 1990 to be precise, the book was published in hardback form. Later, Judson Press would buy the paperback rights. The book is still in print after all these years, and I just this week got my 1099 for 2007 sales; the whopping $26.72 paid for most of a haircut at some point last year!
One of my most fascinating finds in doing research for my book, entitled And Blessed Is She: Sermons by Women, was a dusty old handwritten sermon manuscript belonging to none other than Olympia Brown. It was in a box, with several of Brown’s papers, at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The sermon, which I was able to include in my book, starts off with a scathing indictment of those who occupy themselves with arguments about the proper form of water baptism--in Olympia Brown’s words, “the most trifling and frivolous question which can possibly engage the attention of rational Human Beings.”
Reverend Brown was concerned in her sermon with what she called “baptism of the Holy Ghost.” She, naturally, did not mean by this what those in the pentecostal tradition meant or mean by it. Brown was concerned with encouraging people to be filled with God’s spirit, immersed in the reality that is God. Teaching that baptism was far more than a required ritual, she believed that those who were caught up in such thinking had lost touch with what the true meaning of baptism was. Listen to her inspiring words:

The soul must be filled with the Divine Spirit, inspired by the lofty ideals which it presents as attainable, elevated above the trifling cares and perplexities of life and thus inspired. Thus consecrated to the good, the beautiful, and the true, it grows, it expands, it becomes more and more like the perfect human being--more and more in the image of God: the perfect harmony of the universe is constantly “wooing all souls to the Divine pattern of their destiny.” God by [God’s] Spirit, by the good influences which are thrown around [people] in the pathway of life, is always seeking to win them to the highest and the best. And it is only when reconciled to [God’s] will, conformed to [God’s] love, and made like [God] that the soul enters into complete communion with God, that it is indeed baptized with the Holy Ghost.

In Brown’s view, then, whatever happens in or with the water of baptism has no meaning at all unless one is baptized into God Godself. The water is symbolic of God, really, and baptism either confirms what has happened or leads to what will happen to anyone who allows herself or himself to be embraced fully by the unconditional love of God.
Rev. Brown again:

The baptism of the Holy Spirit implies that there is the Divine life in the soul, the most sacred, exalted, and attuned life possible to human nature....The germs of all excellence are indeed [implanted] in the human soul, but these must be awakened to life, quickened and developed before there can be growth in goodness or in great moral excellence.

The Apostle Paul insisted that there is only one baptism. I doubt seriously that he was caught up in the form of baptism, though I suspect that immersion was the only form he knew. Even so, that wasn’t the point. The point was and is that the water of baptism, a physical substance, is a symbol of a deeper spiritual reality, and the deeper spiritual reality is what truly matters.
Baptism can be a beautiful symbol, a meaningful rite of passage, even in freezing cold baptismal water! If you have been baptized by your own instigation, I believe you will agree with me. As Olympia Brown said, though, “So to place especial importance upon the form of baptism is to make the ceremony more important than the preparation of the heart.” That is the last thing we want.
Amen.

Sunday, February 03, 2008



Dr. George W. Truett





I.
Walter B. Shurden just retired from Mercer University where, for most of his tenure there, he was Chair of the Department of Christianity. Dr. Shurden has influenced me a great deal. He was my Baptist history professor in college, and, as it turns out, he was also my church history professor in seminary. He made a career move from Carson-Newman College to Southern Seminary about the same time I began my seminary studies. He was such an excellent teacher, a riveting lecturer, that I couldn’t resist continuing to study with him even though the Church History Department was filled with other luminary professors.
Writing for the “Center for Baptist Studies,” Dr. Shurden recently said:

I believe that Congressman Chet Edwards of Texas spoke precious truth. He spoke it at the Fountain Plaza of Upper Senate Park in Washington, D. C. on June 29, 2007. The occasion was a Baptist Unity Rally for Religious Liberty and a partial reenactment of George W. Truett’s historic 1920 speech from the steps of the U. S. Capitol....Congressman Edwards called religious liberty “The Divine Gift.” It really is!! Religious Liberty is God's gift to creation. And how we take it for granted! The political expression of "The Divine Gift" is the separation of church and state. And how that needs to be so desperately guarded in our time.

The 1920 speech or sermon by George W. Truett mentioned in Shurden’s remarks is the sermon on which I will be focusing today in this first sermon in my new series in which I’ll be responding week by week to some of the pivotal sermons preached in the last hundred years. The core issue, to which Professor Shurden referred, is separation of church and state in a context of religious liberty, and that is our subject for today.
The “Separation of Church and State” Home Page provides this information about the subject for which its website is named:

Separation of church and state refers to the limits our [country’s] Constitution places on the power of the government (both federal and state) to legislate about religion. Our belief (one shared by the vast majority of legal and historical scholars who have studied the issue) is that the Constitution places religion almost wholly outside the reach of government. In particular, we believe that the Constitution delegates no power to government over religious affairs and that the First Amendment explicitly prohibits the government from establishing or controlling religion. The effect of this arrangement is to leave Americans free to worship, believe, and support religion as they see fit. Additionally, we believe that separation deprives government of its ability to coerce adherence to religion or to compel the support of religion against an individual’s will.

Now, what I just read to you may not cause you to bat an eye. It’s what you believe, and, perhaps, it makes perfect sense to you. The problem is, and this is what Dr. Shurden was alluding to, some very powerful people in this country are not in support of the concept of separation of church and state. Shurden isn’t the only one, by any means, who is concerned about threats to this precious principle.
Back to the “Separation of Church and State” Website for a minute. That site is kept up by three professionals: Tom Peters, who is a Professor of Communication at the University of Louisville; Jim Allison, who is a researcher living in Virginia Beach; and Susan Batte, an attorney and a member of the Supreme Court bar, who practices law in Virginia. This is what they say:

Our concern...is to explain and defend the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. We are concerned that this principle is under attack by the religious right. We believe that this attack is ill-founded and that it bodes ill for our nation and our religious freedoms.

This is where I have to say it! I think we most of us modern U.S Americans take our religious freedom for granted. I think we take it as a foregone conclusion without any real awareness of how it was won for us in the first place and how easily we could lose it--and I don’t mean by having it ripped away from us by some foreign power that would come to overtake us. If we lost our religious freedom, the most probable way we would lose it is through carelessness. Sitting smugly and passively around, let’s say, and doing nothing while the so-called “religious right” ushers in a political system forcing everyone to adhere to the ways of conservative Christianity or else!
Please don’t scoff at what I say. I’m no Chicken Little trying to scare you for fun with my unfounded chirps that the sky is falling.
My dear friends, I actually know people who think it wold be good for the United States to be a single-religion nation, and of course everyone I know who feels that way believes that her or his religion is the one by which all the rest of us should live. You can’t get more unconstitutional than that.
Rob Boston is a journalist who has written a book, now in its second edition, entitled Why the Religious Right Is Wrong: About Separation of Church & State. In the book, Boston takes on the religious right as to its claims that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation” and that our nation’s founders never intended to create a context wherein church and state would need to be separated.
In the extreme, these religious conservatives have become a part of a movement called Dominionism. Dominionists want to replace the present Constitution with a new document that ushers in a theocracy. A theocracy is a form of government in which a deity is regarded as the supreme civil ruler. Proper responses to God are enforced by law. If our nation were a theocracy, I wouldn’t have a job so someone else would be here in my pulpit telling you what he claimed God told him to tell you--not just about your faith, but also about your politics. I say “he” on purpose because in many conservative traditions women wouldn’t be allowed in a pulpit to say anything to anyone. You, essentially, would have no recourse if you disagreed with him. The government then would enforce what the religious leaders told them.
A particularly determined group of radical Christians belong to a movement called Reconstructionism. Some in this movement would make use of the police force and armed forces to whip the rest of us into shape in terms of actions toward God. The absence of the separation of church and state opens the door for whomever is in charge at the moment to force her or his ways on the rest of us. I’m having an awfully difficult time seeing how that could benefit anyone except those who were a part of the religious movement in power at any given moment.
Wake up, my friends! (Oops! I didn’t mean that literally! Go on back to sleep. Someone will tell you when it’s time to go home.) Unless each citizen has the right to believe about God the way she or he chooses, without coercion from anyone, we have no America. This means, among other things, that the atheist is as much a citizen in good standing as the non-institutional Christian who doesn’t want to want to go to church. These types have just as much religious freedom as does the traditional Christian.


II.
The whole issue of separation of church and state as a constitutional issue goes back to President Thomas Jefferson. The Danbury Baptists from Connecticut contacted President Jefferson in 1801. On New Year’s Day of 1802, the President responded with a letter that is now kept at the Library of Congress. Though the letter was brief and to a very small group of people, it is a foundational part of our national history. This 206-year-old paragraph we’d best not ignore or take for granted:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

The critically important parts of President Jefferson’s letter to those Danbury Baptists are those references to no law “respecting the establishment of religion” and no law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Dominionists and Reconstructionists are entitled to their opinions, but it is clear that Founding Parent Jefferson would have had no part of their strong-arm tactics to push people to be a part of any religion. Furthermore, Jefferson was himself a deist, hardly a conservative Christian. He did not believe in the divinity of Jesus; he did not believe that the Bible should be read literally. He did not believe that God was active in the affairs of humankind, but rather that, having created the world and our forebears, God decided to leave it to us to run things. And look what a great job we’re doing!
If you can imagine this, and I know it will be difficult for you, President Jefferson wasn’t fond of clergypersons. I know. I know. That is inconceivable isn’t it? Nonetheless, it’s true. In 1814, twelve years after he calmed the Danbury Baptists with his assurances that their freedom of religion was protected, Jefferson wrote this to a friend:

In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes.

On that unflattering clerical note, I turn to a famous American clergyperson who was and remains important to the battle for American religious liberty. I speak of the Reverend Dr. George W. Truett.
Truett was without a doubt one of the most influential clergypersons of his era, possibly the most widely known and respected Southern Baptist minister in his day. It’s been so long since some of you respected a Baptist, especially a Southern Baptist, that you can’t imagine how it could have been so!
Truett was born in North Carolina in 1867. He served as pastor of the famed First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, from 1897 until 1944. He died in 1944.
During his colorful career, he served as president of both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist World Alliance. President Woodrow Wilson asked Dr. Truett to address the Allied Troops in Europe during World War I.
Truett comes to our attention today because of a famous speech or sermon, it’s often tough for a preacher to draw a line between the two, that he preached on the east steps of the U.S. Capital in 1920. It was a Sunday afternoon in May, and the Southern Baptist Convention was meeting in D.C. that year so Truett had part of his audience built in from the delegates to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptists. Word was, some 10,000 to 15,000 people crowded around to hear him. I can pretty much guarantee you that laypersons estimated 10,000, and clergy-types told the story with the higher numbers. Poets call the freedom to overstate “poetic license.” Ministers call it “telling the truth.”
If you are one of the brave ones who has dared to read the Truett sermon before coming to church today, I applaud you. If you didn’t, you will not be left out of the sermon, but your coffee will not be free when we meet after our gathering in our Fair Trade Coffee Shop. Bill Linn sent me an email this week asking me if my sermon today would parallel the length of the Truett sermon; if so, he needed to make plans to be at church a long time today. I’m not making any promises at this point!
Truett’s sermon was unmistakably pro-American and pro-Protestant. The Catholics were roasted a bit. And Baptists, as you might well expect now that you know the circumstances of the sermon, were praised. I’m not sure how Truett would have felt about Southern Baptists had he lived to see the denomination today--largely rebuffing the notion of separation of church and state. At least on that count, he surely would be horrified.
Given how Southern Baptists and some American Baptists are acting today, it’s easy to Baptist-bash north of the Mason-Dixon line. But Baptists have made some foundational and remarkable contributions. In addition to their unswerving insistence on soul competency, which is an individual’s right and responsibility to come directly into the presence of God without any intermediaries, and I do mean ANY, Baptists have said from their birth on English soil in 1611 or 1612 at the outskirts of London that there must be for all people, in Dr. Shurden’s words, “total religious liberty.”
Truett grabbed onto this notion of religious liberty, and he ran with it in a way few others have ever come close to matching. Very early in his sermon, he spoke these exceptionally moving words, and I repeat them to you now as he spoke them without adapting them for inclusive language, which is my usual practice:

[The Baptist] contention now, is, and has been, and, please God, must ever be, that it is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty. Toleration implies that somebody falsely claims the right to tolerate. Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle....It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel men to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe. God wants free worshipers and no other kind.


III.
There is no way to protect and preserve religious liberty for anyone in a democracy unless the person who chooses not to be religious has the same freedom of expression as the person who wants to be zealously proselytic. Frankly, I must say that an atheist has never awakened me on a Saturday morning to try to find out where I would be spending eternity or to sell me a free booklet. By and large, I suppose I trust a typical atheist a lot more than I trust a religious zealot.
Several years ago, I had to have sinus surgery. I had to choose a surgeon, and I had a choice, thanks to my HMO plan, of a born-again Christian who prayed before, during, and after each surgery he performed or an atheist. I chose a Jew! Suddenly, a new name appeared on the list of available otolaryngologists, and I found in him a magnificent physician. The closer the time came for my surgery, I became much more worried about the anesthesiologist than the surgeon. I figured I could live with a sinus puncture, but I needed to wake up after the procedure!
Both of my sons are bookworms; the younger son is following in his big brother’s footsteps. When I’m with them, I tend to feel like my buddy, novelist Will Campbell. Will once told me that people accused him of having written more than he’d read! Anyway, Jarrett’s Christmas gift to me last year was a stack of books. At the top of the stack was the smallest of the books, and it carried the title, Letter to a Christian Nation. You could call the title “tongue in cheek”!
There is no such thing as a Christian nation. By the Apostle Paul’s own definitions and descriptions of “Christian,” and Jesus didn’t have any of those, becoming a follower of Jesus is an individual choice, though there was a person here and there who embraced the faith and then converted his whole household. Nations, even nations without the level of diversity in the make up of our citizenry, cannot embrace faith; only individuals can embrace faith.
The author, Sam Harris, seems to have set out to do something similar to what Christopher Hitchens tried to do a year later in his book, God Is Not Great, but without coming across as having been intoxicated through most of the writing process. Both writers are top notch writers, but it’s easier for me, most of the time, to follow the one who remains sober--or at least seems so.
Sam Harris has his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Stanford, and when he’s not writing best sellers he’s finishing his Ph.D. in neuroscience. No wonder he dedicated his most recent book to his wife!
The book must have hit an American nerve. It was immediately popular, and Harris’s enemies as well as his devotees were buying up copies as fast as they could be printed. The book hung out on the New York Times best seller list for a while!
Most of what Harris says is a dismantling of unsubstantiable Christian claims. Something drew me back to the book as I pondered how to deal with this subject for today. I took the book off the shelf, and, sure enough, I found what my memory was reaching back for. “As is well known, the beliefs of conservative Christians now exert an extraordinary influence over our national discourse--in our courts, in our schools, and in every branch of government” (pp. viii-ix). Now, we didn’t need Mr. Harris to tell us this because it is so frighteningly obvious, but he does tell us the bold truth in a succinct, memorable manner. What he says adds fuel to the fire for those of us who believe that American religious liberty is honestly at risk largely because of the failure of enough people to believe in the importance of keeping church and state separate.
The idea is not that church and state should hate each other or fail to respect each other; that’s not what we’re going for here. We work well as allies, I think, but not well as lovers. A good firm handshake, yes. Bedfellows, no.
Unfortunately, some folks can’t be faithful at all, and too often a handshake leads to something more tangled and involved; in the matter of the subject before us today the infidelity of both parties to their respective spouses is shameful.
A government that made a commitment to a Constitution pointedly calling for separation of church and state has absolutely no business looking to the church to help it further or accomplish its ends. We know good and well, though, that some of the frontrunners in both political parties pushing for presidential election have already, and early on, met with several leaders of religious right organizations--one of whom is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Similarly, a religious entity claiming that its business, if you will, is to tend to issues of spiritual health, morality, and justice and having made commitments to God to serve God by serving others violates its covenant with God when it gets itself embroiled in secular politics. Individuals in a democracy have an obligation to vote, but the voting process and candidate selection are not for a cleric or a religious organization to determine. Clergypersons telling congregants which candidate they must vote for to please God is unthinkable; helping them recognize how to spot voting irregularities, voting machines that don’t work properly, and such--that’s another matter.
Dr. Truett used one of Jesus’ most remembered sayings to solidify his argument. “Render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” At first, I thought Truett had skated out on thin ice using this particular reference to prove his point. Jesus knew nothing about a church; the church didn’t exist in his lifetime. Jesus was a Jew from birth to death, and Jesus knew nothing whatsoever about true religious liberty. Rome called the shots for the Jews for the whole of Jesus’ life. Tiberius Caesar, who ruled the Roman Empire during most of Jesus’ adult life, was tolerant of the Jews and their religious practices, but Jesus never knew anything about unlimited religious freedom. At best, he got tolerance, not liberty, and eventually the tolerance ran out.
After I thought about it, though, maybe Truett was right in bringing this saying of Jesus to this issue. Even if Dr. Truett and I might disagree on the details of all that Jesus may have meant by saying, “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” the principle is still on target when it comes to separation of church and state, isn’t it? Therefore, let the government keep enhancing liberty for its citizens, and let the church set the example for how institutions can live with integrity and be committed to principles of justice for all.
Amen.