Sunday, March 01, 2009

Brother Al, Britney, and separation of church and state

Getting a piece of what you want (non-gratuitous picture of Britney)

Our old friend Brother Al (Albert Mohler) is shocked at a news report that Obama requires public prayers offered at his events to have their texts approved beforehand.

In This Prayer Approved by the White House? 02/27/09, he refers to this story: A New Tradition for Obama's Presidential Events: Opening With a Prayer by Dan Gilgoff US News & World Report Online 02/24/09.

Brother Al finds this "ominous and troubling".

Uh, Brother Al. Isn't this what all you folks from the Christian Right wanted, to have politics and government and religion merged? Did you think that the influence was only going to go one way, from Church to State and not the other way?

And I seem to recall that there was some discussion last year about a very, very scary black minister who had been the pastor at Obama's church in Chicago for years. Gee, you reckon any of that controversy might have made Obama and his team concerned about the potential for trouble over something a minister might say in a prayer at an Obama event?

I know Brother Al is the president of the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention and all. But maybe he needs to brush up on why Baptists in the US for most of their history were pretty insistent on separation of church and state.

Brother Al even finds himself in agreement with a man who is usually regarded by the Christian Right as a howling banshee from Hail:

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, offered a most interesting response to the revelation that the Obama White House is vetting prayers: "The only thing worse than having these prayers in the first place is to have them vetted, because it entangles the White House in core theological matters."

An ardent and radical Church/State separationist, Barry Lynn has argued that no prayers at government-sponsored events or ceremonies should be delivered, citing both constitutional and theological reservations. I rarely find myself in agreement with Barry Lynn, but I am with him on this issue -- at least with respect to his argument that this practice "entangles the White House in core theological matters."

Of course it does. When a White House approves or edits prayers, it has entered theological territory and takes on a theological function. The President of the United States is our Commander in Chief, not our Theologian in Chief. [my emphasis]
Say, Brother Al, maybe you should check out the Constitution of the United States again, too. It says right there in plain English in Article II, Section 2: "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States."

The President is the Commander-in-Chief of soldiers on active duty. He's not my Commander-in-Chief. He's not Brother Al's, either, unless he's on active duty in the military. Which would probably be a big relief for Brother Al to realize.

Not having the President pose as "Theologian in Chief" was a big reason why the first Congress passed the Bill of Rights, with the first words of the First Amendment reading, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

The Founders in the first Congress were the same distance in time from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as we today are from the US Civil War (1860-1865). The Thirty Years War had been largely (though not exclusively) a big, bloody war of Protestant kingdoms and principalities against Catholic ones. It was by far the worst war in Europe prior to the First World War. It came in the century after the Protestant Reformation occurred, which swiftly led to what historians call the Wars of Religion in the 16th century.

So the Founders were intensely aware of the great harm that institutionally mixing religion and politics could cause.

Some European democracies like Britain still have either established churches or formal institutional agreements with churches. Some of those situations might make worthwhile study for Brother Al, too. The British Parliament sometimes finds itself debating internal affairs of the Church of England. The Government of Austria has the right under their formal agreement with the Catholic Church to veto any appointment of a bishop in Austria of which they disapprove.

You don't have to look at wars, Brother Al, to see ways that mixing church and state can get very inconvenient for churches as well as the state.

A couple of other things are worth point out about this issue.

Dan Gilgoff reported on three cases of ministers who had their prayers pre-approved by the Obama White House. "None of the three invocation givers at Obama's presidential events, who were put in touch with the White House by local political operatives and elected officials, said they were asked to change their prayers after vetting."

So apparently Obama isn't rewriting the Christian Bible quite yet.

Brother Al also specifically called attention to the experience of a minister in Ft. Myers, FL. From Gilgoff's account:

During Obama's recent visit to Fort Myers, Fla., to promote his economic stimulus plan, a black Baptist preacher delivered a prayer that carefully avoided mentioning Jesus, lest he offend anyone in the audience. ...

James Bing, the pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church in Fort Myers, Fla., said he chose to self-censor his prayer. "For some strange reason, the word Jesus is like pouring gasoline on fire for some people in this country," he said. "You learn how to work around that."
Like maybe the large Jewish population in Florida?

I don't see anything wrong with a Christian minister making a prayer at a secular public event non-sectarian. Even though Brother Al and Pastor Bing grump that "some people in this country" [nudge-nudge, wink-wink] don't approve it.

Maybe Brother Al could also listen to Britney Spears song, "Are You Sure You Want A Piece of Me?" When the church gets a piece of the state, that can have some of those "unanticipated consequences" about which conservatives worry so much when a social program is up for debate. (Not so much when a war of choice in Iraq was under debate.)

But then the fundis have never forgiven poor Britney for auditioning at Jive Records years ago using the song "Jesus Loves Me."

So I know Bruce Springsteen isn't a Baptist preacher, either. But his song "With Every Wish" might make valuable listening for Brother Al:

Before you choose your wish you better think first
'Cause with every wish there comes a curse
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