Fearful Christianity

So some North Carolina Republicans want to declare themselves a state religion. I wonder which one it will be? Hmmm, let me think… Whatever that religion will be it will be one that is afraid. Only religions that are uncomfortable with challenges have to back themselves with militaristic force. Seems to me some North Carolina politicians have never read a book on Medieval history. Ironically, the religion they wish to select was probably itself the result of the Reformation, the original challenge to state religion in the history of Christianity. It is also clear that these misguided lawmakers have not fully acquainted themselves with the vast diversity of forms of Christianity. The Christianity they want is televangelist, conservative, Protestant Christianity. Even that, however, is no longer a uniform religion. Why would there be more than one channel?

Those who spend long hours gazing at religion, both from inside and outside, realize that religious belief is not, cannot be, a static entity. Should a genuine apostle walk into an evangelistic Christian service today, chances are great that said apostle would leave wondering what religion this was. According to the Bible itself (ironically, taken only partially seriously by those who promote it) the first Christians were communists. Those who refused to sell everything and give it to the common good were struck dead, or so the book of Acts tells us. My guess is that free market economics has trumped the Holy Spirit here. What legislators really, really want is a religion to back up their secular plans.

Which Christianity would they choose? Who would be welcome in New North Carolina? Mormons? Mennonites? Methodists? Catholics? Well, at least Catholics vote the right way on key issues. Or some of them do. What we are talking about is actual state support of religious ideology. In a country where some of the finest state universities do not even have departments of religious studies, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has one of the finest in the country. And not all the faculty fill North Carolina’s preferred demographic.

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Religions do not take such rear-guard actions unless they are afraid. What does Christianity fear? It depends on which Christianity you mean. Studies have shown that over 41,000 Christian denominations exist. Think about that a minute. If one flavor-of-the-month Christianity becomes official state religion, what becomes of the other 40,999? I’m no math whiz, but it just doesn’t add up. Seems to me that before states start declaring their religions publicly funded, legislators should go back to school. They should be required to take Religion 101. Might I suggest they enroll at UNC Chapel Hill?

Faith and Freedom

Schadenfreude is not my usual response to the downfall of a religious leader—with perhaps the exception of televangelists. After all, religious leaders are only human. Occasionally one crosses a very serious line, as the news about Nechemya Weberman, a Hasidic counselor who was found guilty of molesting a girl under his profession care, reveals. The sad part of this situation, apart from the tragic consequences for his victim, which are very serious in their own right, is that the Satmar Hasidic community insisted that it should have had the right to do its trial in secret. Sects that take their cue from the Bible are seldom fair to women. The Bible, after all, is not a very female-friendly tome, no matter how much feminists may try to rescue it from its androcentric world. Religions based heavily on the Bible feel they have the right to judge by their own standards—something a secular court can’t understand. It is back to the paradigm of the two swords here.

What are we to make of the civil crime that violates no religious laws for any one sect? What is wrong in one book is all right, or at least forgivable in the other. For a secular crime committed in a closed religious community in a country of religious freedom, who is to decide? These questions are decidedly more than rhetorical. Any religion that says women are here to serve men—and there are a disturbingly large number of such religions—can claim that God trumps gent d’armes every time. What’s more, they believe the decree is eternal and they are violating the divine will if they don’t keep to it. This situation is nothing new; at least as early as Tiglath-Pileser III, and probably earlier, ancient religions sometimes had to compromise under the hegemony of a higher power. But they were only biding their time until the political situation would grant their autonomy once more.

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It is simplistic to suggest that the two swords represent the two hemispheres of the brain, but we do have a rational versus emotive issue here. Rationally, would an unseen force endowed with a human personality demand the unfair treatment of some people simply because of an unexplained favoritism? It does not seem likely. But religions are seldom logical. “Credo quia absurdum,” Tertullian is remembered as sighing—“I believe because it is absurd.” Theologically profound? Certainly. Helpful in society? Not so much. Freedom of religion is a classic ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail. Religions are free to declare their own beliefs, but their own beliefs may challenge the very authorities who grant them that privilege. Secular authority may have the ability to put to death, but resurrection is the prerogative of religion.

Educating Religion

The delicate dance engaged in by “church and state,” despite its apparent grace, includes many awkward stumbles and gaffs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in higher education at state-sponsored schools. I teach in two large state universities and the spring semester is winding to its accustomed close in both. The religious calendar of Judaism and Christianity, however, is just winding up. Based on a lunar calculation, the date of Passover is a moveable feast that takes Easter along with it. A late holiday season complicates the end of the semester when many students are held captive by religious leaders insisting that they cannot attend class during this most sacred of seasons. I’ve had many students missing class this week with final exams just around the corner. The students are, however, the innocent victims.

Religions are generally famous for unwillingness to compromise. I have both Jewish and Christian students who attend class despite the holidays while others find the requirements of enforced celebration more pressing. I do not pretend to have an equitable answer for this dilemma, I simply feel myself being squeezed between two colossal forces: the demands of the academy and the requirements of the faiths. Even state universities recognize the liberty of conscience and regulate excused absences for religious holidays. The information missed, however, cannot be easily acquired so close to the end of term.

This jumble of conflicting demands is particularly evident in a Religion Department. Teaching a subject that many – including not a few deans – assume is How to be Religious 101, a lowly instructor is beset with the weight of ecclesiastical and rabbinic decree while trying to educate the young about their own backgrounds. And if grades are not stellar due to missed lectures, it is the teacher who must be blamed. No great wonder, I suppose. We see shifting blame as a repeating pattern among our political and business leaders as well. It is always somebody else’s fault. Oblivious, “church and state” continue their waltz and gather their funds while a few toes get stepped on as the first full moon after the vernal equinox exerts its firm pull on all believers.

In the light of darkness