Friday, March 30, 2007

Religion and politics

They often make strange bedfellows. But some mixtures are more toxic than others.

You've probably heard about James Dobson telling U.S. News & World Report that he didn't think Republican Fred Thompson was a Christian.

That was silly enough. But following Thompson's angry rebuttal, the clarification was even more obnoxious.

Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger said Dobson "use[s] the word 'Christian' to refer to people who are evangelical Christians."

Oh, yes, that makes it all better. In Dobson's formulation, 90 percent of the Christian faith -- Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, what have you -- aren't actually Christian. How charming.

What you might not have heard about was something that took place at the same time: 40 members of Congress calling for a "prayer wall" around the United States.

Mr. Forbes and about 40 other members of Congress from both parties and 19 states will gather outside the Capitol today at noon to issue what they are describing as a call to bring "America back to prayer."

The group has even set up a web site where people can sign up for five-minute slots to pray for the United States.

There's plenty to comment on there. Particularly this:

"If we have several thousand people praying for five minutes for the future of our country, that creates a spiritual fire wall around America that is pretty significant," he said.

"Spiritual fire wall"? Besides sounding goofy, this seems like really bizarre theology, conflating religion with nationalism. What part of the Christian faith would lead one to believe that God would favor the United States over, say, Belgium or Italy or India or Singapore? It's like praying for a sports team to win: it cheapens and distorts the very idea of prayer.

That said, the reaction by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State was completely over the top:

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “Lawmakers should stick to their constitutional duties and leave religious decisions to individuals. Congressional meddling in religion is an affront to the First Amendment principle of church-state separation. Religion is too important to become a political football.”

Their weblog went further, stating: "For lawmakers to call Americans to their knees and insist that religious worship is the only way to solve our many problems is insulting, divisive and, frankly, unconstitutional."

Excuse me?

American citizens don't give up their right to free speech when they get elected to Congress. They are as free as you and me to express their opinion on any subject whatsoever, including belief.

What they are not free to do is use their office to compel compliance, or use the levers of government to promote their faith. But the group has not attempted to do so; they have simply expressed their view that the country needs our prayers.

Americans United is laudably vigilant on church-state separation issues. But their willingness to declare simple speech unconstitutional is, frankly, more violative of the Constitution than the behavior they decry. And their shrillness on this incident suggests a religious intolerance that is the mirror image of what they oppose.

Criticize what members of the Prayer Caucus say. But do not deny them their right to say it.

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