I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

Over the past week I’ve heard several mentions of the breakout of prayer by students at a football game in Marianna, children-praying-in-school-300x300Florida.  The local TV station reported “Just before Friday night’s football game at Marianna High School, students, parents, and even the players went through with reciting the Lord’s Prayer.”  Further, a student is reported as saying “It just shows that with God anything’s possible, nothing can stop us.”  This is all in response to the fact that the local school board had decided that an organized prayer was problematic, something that has been repeatedly upheld by the courts.

Here is what I find odd about all this.  People keep acting as if the students and parents taking it upon themselves to pray is some kind of triumph over some movement to prevent that kind of thing from happening.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  No one has ever suggested that private individuals are not allowed to pray before football games, at graduations, or anything else.  That has never been the issue at hand.  What has been at issue is the idea of prayers organized by public school officials, and this is for a very simple reason.  It is both illegal and inappropriate for the government to endorse any particular religion.  And, of course, that’s what almost all parents, including those in Marianna, Florida, want, even if they are not aware of that fact.  I promise, the last thing any these people who recited the Lord’s Prayer want is for some school official to stand up and lead their children in a prayer a Hindu deity.  They would absolutely freak out.  But, of course, that’s the same kind of respect Hindus want as well.  They don’t want someone in power telling their kids to what god it is appropriate to pray.  And I doubt Protestants want a Catholic official leading students in a prayer to the Virgin Mary, and I can’t help but think that most Southern Baptists would be incredibly uncomfortable if the team coach broke out in Tongues before the big game.  I can come up with these examples all day long.  The only prayers people want their kids praying are prayers to their own god in their own way.  And that’s exactly the reason for not having public school officials lead the children in their charge in prayers in general.

But none of that has anything to do with individuals themselves saying prayers to whatever they want.  On the contrary, that right has been affirmed repeatedly by the courts and defended by that oft-maligned “liberal” group, the ACLU, the same group the report above says claims “it’s against the law for school administrators and teachers to either encourage or discourage [prayer].”  And that is exactly what they say, that school officials cannot encourage or discourage school prayer, but it is that last part that people so often seem to neglect.  There is this strange conviction held by many Christians that they are somehow persecuted, that some secret, nefarious, liberty-hating liberal (funny as that is) cabal within the government is desperate to prevent Christians from worshipping as they wish.  Their evidence of this is that others’ liberties are being protected, namely the liberty to not be coerced into worshipping any particular god at all.  But that is evidence of no such thing, and I am constantly puzzled and dumbfounded as to how anyone who is in control of their mental faculties could ever draw such a conclusion.

A group of Christians praying in public is no victory over anything.  No one is attempting to prevent Christians from practicing their religion.  The only thing at issue has been whether government officials should endorse a particular religion, and this is exemplified here by the idea of teachers leading children, who are told to do as their teachers say, in prayers to entities that may or may not be approved by the children’s parents.  That’s it.  Pray in public all you want.  But when you brag that you’ve somehow overcome prejudice and attempts to revoke your rights because you prayed to Jehovah, you just look foolish and show your own radical misunderstanding of how your own rights are being protected.

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On the Death of America’s God

One of the many things that Jim and I share in common is the fact that we are often assumed to be Christians because of the serious (I’m tempted to say reverent) way in which we approach questions of God and morality in discussions with believers.  As an atheist, you get much further in discussions about any particular religious puzzle when you bracket the BIG question of God’s existence in favor of the smaller questions that arise when you grant the assumption that the Bible (Quoran, etc.) is Divinely-inspired.  People are more interested in having a discussion about belief with you when you don’t start by taking a jackhammer to their epistemic foundations, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise to me that thoughtful Christians might use the same tactic in order to facilitate productive discussions with non-believers.  Still, I was somewhat shocked to come to the end of this essay which decries the shallowness of many Americans’ faith and concludes that “America’s god is not the God that Christians worship” only to find that that it was written by a man named the “Best American Theologian of 2011” by Time Magazine.

Stanley Hauerwas’s essay, “The Death of America’s God” is not one of the most philosophically persuasive pieces that I have read this year.  He makes at least a half-dozen assertions that I find questionable and a few more that seem plainly wrong.  That being said, his thesis is fascinating, and I find his predictions almost perversely exciting.  Moreover, it is genuinely comical that a man who is so thoughtful and observant as a social critic seems so plainly lacking in self-awareness when it comes to his own beliefs.

Hauerwas’s core assertion is that Americans view the relationship between God and Justice differently from the rest of the world.  His thesis is that America’s faith in God is threatened by America’s crumbling faith in the Justice and/or intrinsic Good of our society.   His prediction is that the current political climate will force a reformation of the Protestant Church.

I think much of Hauerwas’s characterization of American thought is roughly correct.  Politicians in other developed countries usually do not get elected by talking about their personal relationship with God, but in the U.S., politicians are more likely to be perceived as trustworthy and honest when they claim to have submitted their will to an all-powerful entity with whom they have a deep, interactive relationship.   Hauerwas is right that most Americans believe that they have free will, that freedom is the quintessential element of a just political system, and that this is unproblematically compatible with belief in and submission to an omniscient, omnipotent god.  I don’t know how we could possibly assess the causal direction between faith in God and faith in Justice/Freedom, but obviously Hauerwas is also right that Americans have a tendency to see these things as interconnected.

So, now to the fascinating-if-unprovable thesis:  Are we nearing the point in history where the failures of our political system will force a religious reformation?  I am skeptical.  I don’t think that revolutions of any sort occur just because people realize that the institutions they trust to make their lives better are founded upon false principles and full of corruption.  I think revolutions only take place when those institutions are so dysfunctional that they no longer provide people with enough protection/peace/order to justify their existence.  Still,  the idea that our religious institutions actually depend upon other types of American faith – faith in democracy, faith in freedom, faith in the basic virtue of the common person- in order to promote faith in God is really interesting.  And Hauerwas’s prediction that our crumbling political order will force a religious reformation seems urgent even if it so vague as to be ultimately unverifiable.

Hauerwas takes the standard historical account of how the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment spawned the American Revolution and folds it back over onto itself.  According to this narrative, the failure of European Catholicism created the foundation for American democracy (and whatever it has become today), but the failure of American democracy (and, of course, by that I mean the failure of modern-corporate-oligarchy-disguised-as-republicanism) will bring about the decline of American Protestantism.   This is exactly the sort of analysis that I would expect out of a Marxist or someone who believed in historical inevitability, but I wouldn’t expect it from a theologian because the tacit implication here is that most Americans’ faith has nothing to do with God’s actual existence and everything to do with cultural affectation.

Hauerwas may be a Christian, but his assessment of American religious life as shallow, contradictory, and cultural (rather than considered) is as damning as anything an atheist could write.  I expect that Hauerwas’s own beliefs are more theologically-sophisticated and perhaps better justified than those of his American Protestant peers.    But there is still something deliciously ironic about the fact that Hauerwas knows that most people believe in God for bad reasons -his entire argument depends upon it- and yet he holds his own faith up as a solution to this problem, concluding with his hope “that God may yet make the church faithful.”   I don’t know if Hauerwas is correct that American atheists are not interesting because “the god most Americans believe in is just not interesting enough to deny,” but I am certain that his argument is more interesting because he is a believer.

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