It was April Fool’s Day when I first heard about the bill that some North Carolina representatives authored asserting “that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.” It was enough to put a real fly in the ointment of my Easter joy.
Being new to North Carolina and not knowing the political landscape I was a bit worried that the bill might actually become a law, but within a few hours, a host of people began to condemn it (including radical “left-wingers” such as Franklin Graham), so at that point, I stopped worrying and went back into my Easter joy. It’s where I should have stayed all along.
My guess is that many of you reading this won’t actually be surprised at the thought of a Baptist preacher being opposed to the idea of religion getting help from the government to be more “established” than it already is. Many progressive Baptists in this part of the country remember what some people in our nation (including some of our Baptist brothers) have forgotten — that it was a group of Baptist Christians who were yelling loudest for the government to get out of the religion business back in the earliest days of the American republic. Frankly, it’s one of the most significant contributions that Baptists have made to the “exceptional” nature of American political life.
It is painfully ironic, then, that such a bill would emerge in the aftermath of the holiest week of the year for Christians. Eight days after we were reminded that Jesus came riding into town on a humble donkey colt (minus any House Joint Resolutions in his saddle bags); four days after we were reminded that Jesus told Peter to put his sword away, rejecting the strategy of coercion; three days after we were reminded that Jesus died on the cross rejected by the crowds and especially the religious and political authorities of his day — a group of assumedly well-intentioned, but highly misinformed legislators sought to reinforce the rights of Christians in North Carolina by doing the exact opposite of what Jesus himself did 2,000 years earlier.
But I’m betting most of you already agree with me on that.
Which brings me to the real reason for writing this. I probably don’t have to convince you that the cross suggests something about our political ethics. It suggests that wielding power to force our will on others is not the way of Jesus. But if wielding power isn’t the way, what is the way? What is the alternative political ethic?
To find the answer we can’t just look at the cross; we also have to visit the empty tomb.
Since the rise to political power of the Religious Right, progressive Baptists (including me) have been shouting at the top of our lungs, that the separation of church and state isn’t a liberal conspiracy; it’s an expression of the way of Jesus. We can’t say we’re loving our neighbors as ourselves if we impose our religion on them. Jesus said no to that strategy of building the Kingdom during his temptation in the wilderness, in his constant request for people not to tell about the personal miracles that he worked on their behalf, and definitively in his death on the Cross.
But three days later Jesus added a “Yes” to the “No.”
If Good Friday teaches us that our political ethic must not be the way of imposed power, Easter reminds us that our political ethic must be the way of hope. Here’s what I think that means for those of us who believe that the separation of church and state is, in fact, the way of Jesus. It means that we can’t just work at saying no to the imposition of faith through the means of coercion. We have to work just as hard or harder to show that a non-coerced faith is the best hope for true spiritual vitality.
We can’t just be against principals and teachers pushing students to pray; we have to be vocally and demonstrably for as many students as possible praying without ceasing in their daily lives. We can’t just be against having the Ten Commandments put on display in courthouses; we have to enthusiastically demonstrate that we have hidden God’s word in our hearts. And while we absolutely must call misguided legislators to account for their frightful misinterpretation of the Christian mandate (not to mention constitutional history), we should also pray and work for the resurrection of faith in our country. True Christianity cannot be coerced, but it must be passionately embodied.
And when Christianity is passionately embodied, the Church doesn’t need any help with establishment.
History proves that In the one place in the world where Christianity has received the most help from the state over the years, Western Europe, Christianity is now all but dead. American history, on the other hand tells a different story. At the beginning of the 19th century, many of the leading religious figures in America despaired of the state of religion in new nation. Statistically speaking, religious faith and practice was nearly non-existent in the years following the American Revolution. And so, when many state legislatures began to discuss dis-establishment of state sponsorship of religion, some thought it would be the final nail in the coffin of vital religious faith.
The opposite turned out to be true. At the beginning of the 19th century, when most states actually began the process of dis-establishment, one of the greatest revivals in Christian history, the Second Great Awakening, broke out, then swept across the country. Vital religion wasn’t dead after all.
It can happen again, but it’s going to take something different than a House Joint Resolution. When it happens, it will be God working through the faithfulness of his people, not the coercion of the state. If Easter faith was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for the rest of us too.
Matt Cook ([email protected]) is pastor of First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.