Dec 6, 2011

When I survey that generic, content-free cross

American arguments about the relationship of church and state, about the practical meaning of disestablishment in the 21st century, are often framed and understood as arguments between those for and against the cultural dominance of Christianity. In turn, this is understood as those for and against Christianity.

One of the weirder things that this misses in the present day fights over church and state is the ways in which those defending the public displays of Christianity have done so explicitly on the grounds that Christianity is culturally meaningless.

Those arguing for Christian symbols and practices say those symbols and practices are free of Christian content.

In Delaware, right now, for example, Sussex County is being sued to stop starting each county government meeting with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. The county's response, the county's argument, is that the Lord's Prayers isn't a Christian prayer.

As the local paper reports: "The county has argued that the Lord's Prayer is not an exclusively Christian prayer.... An attorney for the county has described the prayer 'as generic and universal a prayer as can be crafted.'"

Offering even a single argument for why the prayer is not a generic feels ridiculous. This prayer wasn't written up in a Hallmark factory, after all. The prayer was prayed by Jesus, a prayer he prayed to teach his followers how to pray. I really don't see how someone could seriously think calling for "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven" could be taken as an expression of a universal sentiment, much less a generic one.

Nevertheless, this is a defense of Christianity, as put forward by those who are defending it's public presence: It doesn't actually mean anything.

The American Atheists see this as, somehow, as an attempt at the institution of Christian theocracy. In response to the Delaware dispute, they warn of the "theocratization" of the United States: "The only reason to secularize [the Lord's Prayer] and make it 'generic' is to continue to push theocracy."

This is a very weird understanding of theocracy. To say the least.

Certainly when R.J. Rushdooney was theorizing about capital punishment for homosexuals and assorted others, he wasn't doing this out of the generic, non-religious nature of the Old Testament. When the late Bobby Franklin was trying to turn the state of Georgia into a theocracy -- arguing that government as we know it is an offense against God -- he wasn't attempting to set up a generic, it-really-dosen't-mean-anything, it's-not-really-Christianity Christianity.

Indeed, one would think Rushdooney, Franklin and the American Atheists would all actually agree on this point. They could well join together in rejecting the Sussex County Council's version of a vague, demand-less Jesus. Theocrats are actually on the American Atheist's side, here, in arguing the prayer "your kingdom come" is not neutral.

Nevertheless, this idea that Christianity is not only neutral and not religious, but so neutral as to mean nothing is a standard one for those ostensibly defending Christianity.

In another recent case, The Utah Highway Patrol Association vs. American Atheists, a fight over crosses erected on public property in memorial to dead highway patrol officers, those who were for the crosses argued the cross was not a specifically Christian symbol.

When an appeals court ruled that a cross is the "preeminent symbol of Christianity," this was a ruling in favor of the atheists, against those who wanted crosses displayed in public, on public land, and to the public.

In a brief in defense of the crosses to the Supreme Court, for example, the Roy Moore-headed Foundation for Moral Law argued:
"The cross is 'religious' to some people, but it is not a 'religion,' properly defined, to anyone. Moreover, that which constitutes a 'religion' under the Establishment Clause must inform the follower not only what to do (or not do) but also how those commands and prohibitions are to be carried out. A symbol of the cross does neither and thus cannot be considered a 'religion.'"
Besides being an odd definition of "religion," "religious" and religious speech, it seems like this description of the cross and the uses of that symbol would have to be really weird to anyone who's ever knelt before a crucifix, been urged to "pick up your cross" and follow Jesus, or sung "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

There may well be an argument that the symbols and even the practices of Christianity are entirely devoid of content in American culture today. I don't actually think that's the case: government officials publicly leading constituents in the Lord's Prayer and a cross on public property would certainly communicate the Christian identity of government to someone who was alienated by that identification, communicating that the government wasn't their government, I think. If it was the case, though, wouldn't that say a lot more about the cultural irrelevance of Christianity and be much more problematic for Christians than anything these "defenders" are defending against?

There's a top-level crust to church-state arguments where everything seems really obvious. There are sides, the sides have positions, the positions and the sides make sense. Looked at even a little, though, and one ends up in all sorts of weird place. Like atheists arguing for the meaningfulness of prayer, and professional defenders of Christianity making the case the cross has no real religious meaning.

2 comments:

  1. regarding the Lord's Prayer: that prayer came about when the disciples asked Jesus to "teach them to pray AS JOHN TAUGHT HIS DISCIPLES TO PRAY." (luke 11.1) teachers had certain prayers - and in some cases, just ONE prayer - they taught to their disciples. since most prayers were uttered out loud, the prayer became the mark of their teacher in the fabric of their prayer. my friend and rabbi, Derek Leman, said: "The Lord's Prayer was the mark of Jesus on the lips of the disciples." the Lord's Prayer IS the "christian" prayer, no doubt. stand up in any restaurant and say this prayer loud enough, and people will say, "that's the Jesus prayer."

    just weighing in.

    Derek Sweatman

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  2. It's worth distinguishing the original context (which you're talking about) from other social contexts that adjust the way something like the Lord's Prayer is perceived.

    There has been a non-denominational, Civil Religion use of the Lord's Prayer in the US. It's the prayer you hear at weddings which are almost totally secular have have just a touch of vaguely Christian solemnity, at AA meetings where everyone accepts their own "higher power," Lion's Club functions, and so forth. It's similar to how "Amazing Grace" is now an all-purpose public song, any time there's need for a mass expression of public mourning/resolve. In these contexts, the prayer can come to be seen as "religious," but also very, very generic.

    Another way to put this: distinctively Christian symbols and acts can be neutralized by being made culturally acceptable. Despite any original distinctiveness (marking Jesus' followers as different than everyone else's, for example). When one argues that Jesus and Jesus' prayer *isn't* alienating to anyone, one is arguing that they have been emptied of content, effectively, and made neutral.

    That's not to say, however, that that can't happen. It seems like it's quite possible that, in certain contexts, in given situations, these things have been made meaningless.

    The weird part of that, though, is that one ends up saying that the atheists are wrong in saying that Jesus' prayer is like Jesus said it was.

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