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Apr  2016 12
Religious Symbols Don't Belong to the State

In Oklahoma, lawmakers want to put a constitutional change up for a popular vote in November in order to allow a Ten Commandments monument to sit at the capitol. In Tennessee, lawmakers have sent a measure on to the governor to make the Bible the state’s book.

In both cases, the arguments have claimed historical importance of the artifacts: that Western law is founded on the Ten Commandments, or at least was informed by such; that the Bible is an essential book in Western civilization.

In Tennessee, evangelical leaders have vigorously objected to the pending law. Yeah! Those evangelicals are remembering something hugely important for People of Faith. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was designed for several reasons.

The more oft-invoked reason these days is to protect the state from being assaulted by competing versions of theocracy. But another and equally important reason for #1 is to protect religion from the state because the state will take religious symbols and use them for their own purposes, and use the power of the sword to enforce orthodoxy in the realm of spirit and conscience.

Baptists used to know this. I am glad some still do. Roger Williams (1603 – 1683), one of the founders of Rhode Island, emigrated from London to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631.

After he objected to the enforcement by the magistrates of the first four of the Ten Commandments (duties toward God), he was banished in 1635. In 1644, he wrote a seminal work, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience.

This work is one of the landmark statements, from a religious point of view, on why the state should not be allowed any competency in determining or expressing a religion—persecution will follow, and the inviolable principle in religion of conscience will be violated. Baptist minister Isaac Backus (1724 – 1806) importuned the Constitutional Convention in 1787 on the behalf of the principle contained in Article VI of the Constitution, prohibiting a religious test for office.

He wrote regarding Christian history from the time of Constantine, “And let the history of all nations be searched, from that day to this, and it will appear that the imposing of all religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world.”

Do not give the state the power of religion.

Why in heaven’s name would people of faith lend our symbols to the state? How does saying a book or a monument has “historical value” do anything other than relegate those symbols to the past and thus strip or diminish the faith claims that these symbols contain or represent the power to change lives?

I would not trust Christian symbols in the hands of ANY elected leader, for use by the state, however much I like them. The state’s cause for being will always be at least somewhat at odds with a Christian way and cause for being. If we surrender our symbols to the state, we give the state the power to reduce those symbols to fit their ends, rather than the ends for which those symbols were created.

Read the history of any war in the U.S., most especially the Civil War, and you’ll see abundant evidence of the state using religion for its own ends. And, God knows, we religious folks have a hard enough time being shaped by our symbols rather than reducing those symbols to our handheld gods.

When I consider the Commandments and the text that lawmakers want to enshrine, and then consider their actions to discriminate, expel, rebuke, dismember, disenfranchise, exploit, abandon, and ban, I wonder what Jesus would say.

Maybe the words in Matthew 23 apply, where Jesus rebukes religious leaders who “build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous,” and rejects their claim that, if the leaders “lived in the day,” they would have been faithful supporters of the prophets, when by their actions they showed themselves to be in the lineage of those who “murdered the prophets,” which we are when we act in the opposite way of the ancestors we “honor.”

So, if these measure pass in the two states, we religious folks need to do everything possible to point out the unintended humor of the actions: there is a great deal of humor that can be found in hypocrisy. But it would be better if we religious folks importuned against any co-optation by the state of our saving symbols.

Let’s join those founding father Baptists and contemporary Tennessee evangelicals who don’t want the state’s coercive power intermingled with Godly symbols. 

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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