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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Protecting Religion From Itself

As much as I love to poke fun at religion, I think it is important to recognize that not all religious people are "the enemy" (besides, I consider myself more Pro-Reality than Anti-Religion). We can argue the exact numbers, but there is a sizeable percentage of theists in this country who do not wish to turn our government into a theocracy, though they may not be as vigilant about the separation of church and state as they should be. One such theist who is on the right side of the battle happens to be a reverend in the United Church of Christ and also the executive director of one of the most prominent church/state organizations in the country. I am of course referring to the Rev. Barry Lynn and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. And I have just finished reading his new book "Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom".

There have of course been many books written about church/state separation and how the encroaching religious influence into government is bad for government. And while Lynn makes this argument throughout the book, he spends just as much time, if not more, exposing the other victim of this entanglement: government support for religion is bad for religion. I have been harping on this point for years and I think it may be more effective in convincing theists that they should be supporting the wall of separation. Some examples Lynn uses to get this point across:

"'In God We Trust' on the money has been challenged in court at least twice. In both cases, the federal courts declared use of the phrase "ceremonial" and held that it is not really religious. Phrases like this, courts have said, are merely examples of "ceremonial deism," and they lose their religious significance through constant use over time." (p 112)

"The ceremonial use of religion by the state is among the cheapest examples of empty spirituality available. As time passes, it descends to the level of mere ritual--something that must be done, but not ever thought about. Virtually every politician in America now ends his or her speeches with "God Bless America." Do they say this because they truly want God to bless the nation or because it is expected, because no other closing is seen as acceptable? If it's the latter, and I believe it is, we are simply going through the motions." (p 113)

"What happens when the federal government or the state comes in with a huge grant? Why should congregants dig deeper and go the extra mile if the government is standing by with a check? What's more fulfilling and personally satisfying to a congregation--energizing everyone to work side by side to raise money, build an addition, and open and stock a food pantry or having the church secretary fill out and mail a grant application to the Department of Health and Human Services?" (p 143)

"People often ask me, when I'm out giving a speech, why religion is on the decline in many other Western nations. I really do believe it is because the churches in those countries got too close to the state. As religious groups got more and more of their needs met by government sources, the people in pews grew alienated. Why should they give more on Sunday if they already paid taxes to support religion? Gradually the sense of alienation grew. If all people are asked to do is join in ritual and recite creeds over and over, if they are not drawn more fully into the life of a congregation, they will soon see little need to keep showing up on Sunday morning. So they begin to stay home." (pp 143-144)

"I'm a big fan of interfaith initiatives. If several small or medium-sized churches pool their resources, they can achieve more than they would acting individually and avoid unnecessary duplication of services. These projects also build interfaith cooperation and promote understanding among denominations. We need more of that in times like these. Ironically, the bush faith-based initiative does just the opposite: it actively pits religious groups against one another and against providers in the secular community for a shrinking slice of the social service funding pie." (p 145)

Basically, Lynn demonstrates that government involvement in religion turns religion into a ceremonial triviality, causes followers to become cheap and lazy, and ultimately alienates people from the church. If we atheists were as "evil" as they make us out to be, we would probably give up the fight for separation and let them have their way, knowing that religion would eventually cease to be a major influence in this country, making the US (and most likely the world) a better place for future generations. Maybe we just aren't that far-sighted.

While Lynn does address the dangers of religious influence on government (e.g. abstinence-only education, teaching creationism as science, anti-gay legislation), this book was also written for another purpose, one I feel isn't publicized enough by the secular community--to convince the average church-going American that it is in their, and their religion's best interest to support the separation of church and state. The assault on the wall of separation is an assault on religion itself. If you think about it, this is a win-win situation for us--not only are we protecting everyone's right to religious freedom but we can also argue that we are protecting religion itself from becoming obsolete. What theist can argue with that one?


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