Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Faith& Culture

“Freedom of Religion” or “Freedom from Religion”? What was your understanding of the American Revolution? The story I was taught and believed was that the American Revolution, among other things, set its citizens free from a State Church and urged the free and private practice of faith within its borders. That thought has been so ingrained in me that while I am unapologetically a Christian, I support the freedom of others to practice religions that I profoundly disagree with. I have been taught to defend the rights of minority groups to express their faith freely. That’s American.
France has a different history and story. The French Revolution of 1789 was to be free from religion, especially the bondage of Crown and Church. The linkage of power between Crown and Church was so dominant, that when one was overthrown, so was the other, with vigor and violence. That legacy exists in popular culture down to this day.
In a conversation with a French school teacher, she told me of the razor-blade she walks every day, to keep her faith quiet and hidden from her students and fellow teachers. When interviewing for a position, she was asked to speak about her life, with the implicit understanding that nothing about “faith” could be included, though she was born and raised in the church as a pastor’s daughter. Any reference must be couched as an “organization” or “club” she belonged to.
A student asked her to clarify what “B.C” and “A.D.” meant. She explained that “B.C” was “before Christ” and “A.D.” was Latin for “Anno Domini” or “the year of the Lord”. A parent was very upset and scheduled an appointment with her, concerned that she was “propagating” her faith.
She said that there are three accepted postures for teachers about religion: cynical, ironic or mythic. Those are safe approaches to faith in a secular culture. When I watch “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” all I see is cynicism, irony and myth. Maybe we are not too far behind


At 4:40 PM , Anonymous John Burzynski said...

This post raises an interesting issue. Is it possible to have a secular government and a religious culture? I’ll have to plead ignorance to the socio-politics of France, but based on your description it seems that the result of the revolution was the creation of a largely secular culture that created and empowered a secular government.

In the states we have something of a paradox: a vehemently secular government and an overtly religious nation. With the vast majority of Americans professing belief in a god of some sort, and a majority of that group claiming to hold to the Christian faith, it seems like we should have ended up with a more theocratic government. So why didn’t we?

During my internship at the ACLU this summer, I’ve had the opportunity to explore this issue through research and writing on the First Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…) and the resulting doctrine of “Separation between Church and State”. This curious doctrine appears no where in the actual text of the Constitution, but rather through the writings of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams interpreting the First Amendment.

The impact of this doctrine is impressive and has resulted in numerous court decisions chastising the government for getting involved in any religion. Any sign of support for religion, anything that could even tend towards any sort of establishment, is struck down by the courts. But balancing this out is the reality of a very Christian nation where religion plays an active role in many peoples personal lives, and their politics. Listen to a speech by either of the presidential candidates and odds are that you will hear an invocation of the divine. Religion permeates the American culture and discourse to great depths. Yes, religion may be mocked on the Today Show and Colbert Report and spoken about with cynicism, but so is every other aspect of American culture.

What’s so interesting about the lampooning is that it even happens. What does it say about our culture that Americans don’t put religion up on an untouchable pedestal where it cannot be engaged by the common man or addressed with anything short of reverence? I would argue that it illustrates how common and ingrained religion is in the American mind. Like rough and tumble politics, or the antics of Hollywood celebrities, or the current events of the day, religion is so much a part of American identity that it can be openly discussed, debated, and even mocked. It is not a distant, private, or remote institution, but a close and very public reality. I see in American culture not the death knell of religion in the public square or the advent of a secular culture to rival France, but rather quite the opposite: that religion is deeply embedded in our culture with little sign of impending doom.

John Burzynski

At 1:47 AM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Dear John;
I appreciate your assessment of a secular state with a religious culture. You are insightful about the strength and health of religion in that it is able to be critiqued and lampooned, keeping it as a legitimate topic for discussion and criticism. In this culture in France, it is definitely “off limits” within the public sector (from my naïve point of view). Even among a number of believers, they do not think of promoting or propagating faith to their community, hence evangelism is left to foreigners and is stigmatized as something less-than-French.
But I have concerns in the political realm when candidates make their theological appeal to God blessing their course of action without submitting their course of action to honest biblical criticism and review. America’s more amorphous sense of God benignly blessing whatever we want to do so long as we do not hurt anyone else is more of a civil religion than biblical. I am reading straight through the Bible this summer and see lots of illustrations why theocratic governments, while nice in the ideal, are fraught with problems in their implementation.
John, I am glad you are where you are and asking the questions that always came with you. Keep me informed of your progress, plans and directions.



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