Which God?

May 16, 2010

Wait, we were praying to Zeus??

Wayne Baker continues his series at AnnArbor.com regarding prayer at public universities (and separation of church and state in general). He makes some very interesting points. His conclusion is that those who are fighting for the radical separation of church and state (to silence and remove any prayers or vestiges of religion) are misunderstanding the intent and purpose of the constitution. His conclusion is:

The Religion Clauses in the Constitution were meant to prevent state-sponsored religion and to grant freedom for religion. But their intent was not to eliminate state support of religion’s role in civil society. The high court’s focus should be distinguishing between theological religion and civil religion, refusing to support the theological side but promoting the civil side of religious organizations.

I thought that this was  a very interesting analysis of the intent of the founding fathers and the meaning of the first amendment. I have no doubt that this is a good historical analysis as it makes sense of the fact that many of the people who established the constitution also allowed prayer and other religious activities in public institutions.

With that being said, I would like to get back to a biblical framework for Christians to view these things. I would like to reference Oxford New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright about the use of the word “God” for Christians and examine the constitution as Baker interprets it and then evaluate how Christians should interact.

Wright, in the preface to his brilliant tome, ‘The New Testament and the People of God’, makes that case that we must be careful when using the word “God” as though everyone is talking about the same thing. In the first century (that the New Testament was born out of) there were thousands of gods. Some were good, some were angry, some were sexual, and some were chaste. In the first century, if you were going to say, “God” you would probably need to clarify which god you were talking about. This is why we find the Bible writers usually use phrases like, “The God of Israel” or the “God of gods”. Wright says, “I have often preferred either to refer to Israeli’s god by the biblical name, YHWH…In a world where there were many suns, one would not say ‘the sun’.” He goes on to explain that even in our own time there are some pretty dramatically different conceptions of God.

There is the Deist god (this would have been the god that many of the founding fathers believed in). This god is hands off (for the most part anyway). He had a role in the creation of the universe (possibly setting the constants in place) and he has a role in providence but generally doesn’t intervene in the day to day. This god is quite different than the god of the Bible (that is seen being hands on in almost every detail of our lives – see Psalm 139). There are other gods such as Pantheist and Panentheist gods. These too are quite unlike the Creator-god of the bible. There are the gods of the Hindu faith and the gods of tribal religions throughout the world. Further, in our society there appears to be a personal god of many people. When discussing scripture with people I often hear the phrase, “My god wouldn’t do this or that.”

If Baker is correct in his interpretation of the Constitution, my question would be: does the constitution require us to intentionally remain reticent as to which god we are worshiping, praying to, and acknowledging? If so, this seems very problematic to me. I don’t think that the Christian religion, as conceived in the bible,  lends itself to intentionally being ambiguous about the God that is being worshiped. In fact, it appears to command us not to do this (Exodus 20:3).

Not sure how this plays out in real life but I do think that this is something that needs to be considered by Christians as they explore their faith in relationship to governmental institutions.


3 Responses to “Which God?”

  1. Doug Indeap Says:

    How one can distinguish theological from civil religion and support one without supporting the other is not apparent.

    The principles of separation of church and state already are more nuanced that Baker seems to acknowledge. It is critical, for instance, to distinguish between the “public square” and “government.” The principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. Students, for instance, are free to pray or otherwise exercise their religion in school as long as they do so in a time, manner, and place that does not interfere with school programs and activities.

    The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state. I commend it to you. http://www.adl.org/religious_freedom/WFU-Divinity-Joint-Statement.pdf

    • W. Vida Says:

      Doug. Great comments.

      Let me say that I am of the opinion (as I noted in the previous post on Baker’s series) that the state does not have the God-given right to restrain Christians from public expression of faith (whether they are government employees or not). That is over stepping the bounds of the role of the state. That was my interaction with the Bible’s statutes regarding church and state. Here is my discussion there.


      Noting that preface, the present post is an interaction with the US constitution and what the founding fathers meant by it and how that interacts with the biblical faith. I thought that Baker’s understanding of the constitution and the original intent seemed to make sense with what I know about the Fathers (many of them being Deists and many of them holding to a philosophical framework that allowed for neutrality of religion – something I believe is impossible).

      The creation of a ambiguous god (the god of civil religion) seems to be an attempt to make the first amendment work in some practical way (ie without establishing atheism, how do we not establish a particular religion). The intent of my post was to show that I don’t agree that this is a good approach.

      I don’t really have answers from a practical standpoint but I am enjoying the discussion and thinking through the issue.

  2. Steven Says:

    Hi, W. Vida, not exactly, the Founding Father’s created the 1st Amendment to prohibit the Federal Govt. from establishing a denominational church, like Great Britain did with the Anglican denomination. And the 1st Amendment prohibits the Federal Govt. from intruding on religious freedom, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech and assembly, these the Federal Govt. cannot touch, though they say that Congress is to act upon actions only, they are only allowed to do so if that religion causes physical ill to his neighbor, polygamy, bigamy, human sacrifice, etc.

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