Monday, July 14, 2008
Click here to view this essay as published by the online issue of Springfield, Missouri's News-Leader


Read/Post Comments (6)

        I understand the need to foster patriotism (i.e., national loyalty) and the human need to engage in religious worship. But in our federated states, which constitutionally provide for the separation of church and state, patriotism and religion should not be confused. They are two different loyalties. Mixing the two, for example by displaying the American flag in church or officially posting sectarian religious slogans in a government office, is inappropriate. For one thing, mixing these different primary loyalties confuses what the founding leaders of our country clearly wanted to keep distinct. When we recite the pledge of allegiance in our worship or post a particular elected (or appointed) official’s personal brand of religion in a public office we confuse our loyalties. Confusing them suggests that religious people are patriotic and patriotic people are religious.

       Nothing could be further from the truth! There are times when the institutional church must protest particular governmental policies, like certain of the Hebrew prophets who pronounced destruction on their nation in God’s name. If the institutional church is too closely identified with governing authority, it risks losing its moral compass and personal integrity. For example, in the 1930s the state church in Hitler’s Germany was silent about mass slayings of Jews, Poles, gypsies and others. Few voices were raised protesting the policies of Mr. Hitler’s National Socialism.

       On July 9, 2008 the Springfield News-Leader ran an opinion piece about a poster displayed in the Circuit Court of Greene County (the 31st Judicial District). The Circuit Court Clerk displayed a poster promoting his personal religious beliefs along with patriotic symbols. Among other things, the poster featured an abbreviated listing of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue), and a dedication “to the one who gave it all for us, Jesus Christ,” both of these are blatantly religious sentiments. The Decalogue (Deut 5:7-21) is a legal code of the ancient Hebrews, which some Christians have made into a Christian religious icon—as though if we all lived by these “moral” rules it would correct what is wrong with the country. But the Ten Commandments as a whole are not a convenient fit for our constitutionally pluralistic society. The Decalogue divides into three parts: Commands 1-4 describe the Hebrews’ responsibility to God, command 5 relates to family obligations, and commands 6-10 relate to interaction within the Israelite community. Commandment #1 (no other Gods) cannot be enforced in our society—not if we want to maintain a society where people are free to worship any god they please. Commandment #4 (observe the Sabbath day, i.e., Saturday) mandates a day of worship not usually observed by Christians, and I suspect there would be a loud complaint raised if the government tried to enforce Sabbath worship as the law of the land (thereby violating the first amendment). Commandment # 3 (taking God’s name “in vain”; i.e., using it to no constructive purpose) likely violates the first amendment (freedom of speech; and making a law establishing a particular religion) by legislating a religious attitude toward a particular God’s “name.” We already have laws covering commandments 6-9. And I am not sure how the government would go about enforcing #10 (don’t covet your neighbors’ goods or his wife—chauvinistic in form). What sort of sanctions do you suppose our law makers would impose for covetousness—if they could even recognize it. So unless we remarkably change our system of government (which we will not do), the poster was a tempest in a teapot.

       The Christian dedication is clearly a sectarian sentiment, one that is not even shared by all Christians, either in the present or the past. But the question is should such religious slogans be part of the official furnishings of a government office. Sectarian slogans of any religious stripe don’t belong in a government office, just as patriotic symbols don’t belong among the furnishings of the church (except maybe for military chapels). Nevertheless, all of us can express our personal views by wearing a cross around our neck and a tablet (what Jewish chaplains wear in the military symbolizing the Decalogue) on our lapel, just as patriotic Americans can wear during worship red, white, and blue ties and flags in our lapel. The circuit clerk’s stand was an attempt to push the proverbial nose of the camel under the bedouin’s tent—meaning it aimed at eroding the separation of church and state principle by appealing to militant Christians uncomfortable with being merely one religion among many. At bottom, the poster confuses patriotism and religion, and is about getting the power and influence to establish a particular religion, or, at least, to give one religious view preference over others.

Charles W. Hedrick
Emeritus Professor
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:09pm

Very well said, Charlie. Ed (Edward R. Smith, Lubbock, TX)
Posted by Edward Smith on 7/14/2008 at 6:41pm

Thanks, Charles, for sharing this with us. We agree with you entirely.
Posted by Charles and Harrylyn on 7/14/2008 at 9:50pm

Enjoyed reading your latest...I have read only once, and that is never enough for me to get it all sufficiently to leave it and not come back. It is easier for me to not be patriotic about my religion than it is for me to not be religious about my patriotism! I grew up in that era that patriotism was so nearly a religious experience that it still has a profound effect on me. I think Jesus was clear about God/Ceasar, don't you? That doesn't give me much trouble (and my years in education, recognizing I didn't want a forced prayer of any kind, denomination, the school room contributed to that I am sure) but my love of country gets so close to my faith, I'm not always sure that I keep them separate...that might not make sense to anyone be it. Thanks for asking another question for which I had to think to answer. I am very old, you know!
Posted by Grace Menhel on 7/14/2008 at 9:54pm
Hi Gracie,
I'm sorry but I never think of you as "old." Whatever happened to "you are only as old as you feel"? I do have a brief comment on your reference to God and Caesar. Actually, I don't think Jesus was clear. In my opinion he waffled! I assume that you are talking about Mark 12:17: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." So the question is, what is Caesar's and what is God's? Jesus' ambiguous statement actually leaves the issue up to the whimsey of the reader, and my guess is that we will all have a somewhat different answer.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 7/15/2008 at 8:04am
Charlie...if we are only as old as we feel, I am a lot older than I was when I first read your article! Well, "waffled" and "whimsy"! Are you trying to shock me with the words "Jesus" and "waffled" in the same sentence where no one else could be the subject? No, I don't agree. I don't think He ever waffled. It is clear to me, anyway, that I do the waffling, according to my own whimsey, but when the situation presents itself, I KNOW what is Caesar's and I KNOW what is God's. Now, the rendering is where my nature comes in. Notice I am referring to MY patriotism and MY personal religious piety. Now, if I have to think on this any harder my head will hurt! Be blessed.
Love you, g
Posted by Grace Menhel on 7/14/2008 at 7:24pm
Wonderful reply, Gracie!
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 7/16/2008 at 9:21am

The suggestion that in Mark 12:17 ("Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's...") Jesus waffled is probably wrong. I remember Clarence Jordan (author of the Cotton Patch translation of the New Testament) explain this verse; this was in the late 60s, during the Vietnam War and growing resistance to it. The "things" that belong to Caesar are things with the Caesar's image: coins. Note the context. A coin is presented to Jesus, and Jesus asks whose image is on it--Caesar's. Jordan then asked: what bears God's image? The human being, of course. So the things that belong to Caesar are coins and such that bear his image; to God belongs the whole human being. If this is correct, Jesus deftly avoids saying something treasonous while being completely clear that Caesar--the government--does not own the human person, does not own, moreover, anything that belongs to God. Charlie's championing of the separation of religion and state is very much in line with this.
Posted by Arland Jacobson on 7/16/2008 at 1:37pm
I have no doubt that you are correct that this is the way Mark read the verse but at the risk of “bringing coals to New Castle” (i.e., isolated sayings to one of the fathers of Q) all we have from Jesus are the sayings. We have no idea what Jesus had in mind with the saying. And in any case if Jesus agreed with Mark the idea that some things are God’s and other things belong to the state that is still pretty nebulous. Does that include for example the supporting of an unpopular war or any war for that matter? As taxpayers we do support the war whether we want to or not. With respect to the state and God this saying is about the only guidance we get from Jesus. Thanks for addressing the issue.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 7/16/2008 at 6:45pm

You make excellent distinctions in this piece, Charlie. Thanks! In the SBC churches in which we grew up, this was pretty well understood, I thought, but certainly not today. We need more discussions of this sort. Posted by Martha Hatt on 7/17/2008 at 10:23am