“Poor men wanna be rich, rich men wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything” – sage words of a young Bruce Springsteen. Of course, “man” may well apply to institutions as well as individuals. According to a recent story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the European high court has ruled that it is appropriate for public schools in Italy to decorate their classrooms with crucifixes. While this may not seem unusual for the heavily Roman Catholic nation, indeed, the homeland of the church itself; nevertheless it reveals much of the nature of religion. Religions, like Springsteen’s human characters, want to take charge of everything. Partial rule just isn’t good enough in a business that deals with absolutes.
Not every citizen in Italy is Roman Catholic. Some are not even Christian. State sponsored schools bearing the insignia of the church’s glory days send a message that can be heard from the highways to the backstreets: Christianity rules! If we wheel the world around a few degrees further we will find similar rhetoric in nations like Iran, only the specific brand of religion has changed. The message is distressingly familiar: Islam rules! There was a time when the church could likely be called the only true superpower in Europe. We remember that time now as the Dark Ages.
As campaigns for next year’s elections in the United States are pumping up, we are hearing quite a bit about candidates’ religious convictions. That which used to be a private affair has become an emblem emblazoned on a flamboyant flag declaring “Gott und Ich” to the world. Worse, the religions are being used to score votes. Once in office, that religion will return to its flaccid state and politics will be business as usual. The populace, however, has trouble seeing through this. Religion is injected with such emotional freight that leaving it out of elections – or classrooms – is like abandoning a helpless infant. As they nail their crucifixes to the walls of public schools in Italy, I’ll be over here with Bruce surveying these badlands.