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June 19, 2004

Nation offers ample freedom

The Rev. Matt Idom

“How,” began my wife with her serious question at a serious time, “can people say there is separation of church and state in America if every time there is an emergency or crisis or war or death our nation turns first to God?”

She had a great point. I’ve read the history books and speeches made by presidents during World War I and World War II. They evoke God often. I remember the services after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the bombing in Oklahoma City and the attacks of 9-11. What does America do in such moments? What do our elected leaders do? They go to churches and they lead us in prayer.

Here we were watching television together as the nation remembered President Ronald Reagan. The setting for the service was the National Cathedral, the same place where President Bush drew us together in prayer and remembrance following 9-11.

A national church.

One person who joined the eulogizers was Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Hers is the same court that volleyed the question of “One nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance; the same court that evokes God’s mercy and presence upon their proceedings every time they convene.

Yet, the same court said the words of the pledge merely are “ceremonial.”

It seems our national hypocrisy knows no bounds.

It is a simple litmus test for Christian folk. You can’t have faith in God void of the church Christ ordained. In classic Christian theology, faith in God means membership in the body of Christ. It also means faith practiced and lived in the church. This isn’t a Protestant or Catholic thing. This isn’t a denomination thing. This IS a Christian thing. That is why we baptize “into the body of Christ.”

So the conundrum is created. For a Christian, to imply that we turn to God in faith at times such as presidents’ funerals or national tragedies, and do so separated from our church, is impossible. It cannot be rationalized on philosophical, theological or political grounds. Nope, can’t be done for a Christian.

I’m careful and cautious here. I realize this is hugely, grossly discomforting for people I love and respect who are not Christian. But to deny the reality of how we respond as a nation would be naive. Legislation can’t change it. Court rulings are powerless. Elections, trivial in the attempts.

Look at Reagan’s funeral. The order of worship, the ritual, the hymns, the prayers all were born of the church. Were they “merely ceremonial?”

Yes, a rabbi was invited to participate. The Judeo-Christian tradition embraces the shared history and theology. But I wonder, if Reagan had been Jewish, would the service have been held in a synagogue? I would hope so, but I am doubtful.

Indeed, it seems our national hypocrisy knows no bounds. Nor does our continued “bent towards sinning.” Why were there no black leaders there to eulogize a national hero, renowned for bringing peace and equality to the world? None to read a prayer? To sing a song? To share in the order of worship? Where were our Hispanic or Asian-American citizens?

Like most churches in America, even in our National Cathedral, it seems we remain largely segregated.

When on both local and national platforms candidates for public office can attack another’s faith, making it an “election issue,” and then not be held accountable for the “words of their mouths,” then we just heap refuse on the pile of our sinfulness. We think we can run and hide behind the skirts of Mother Church and everything will be hunky dory. Do we really think we can play hop-scotch with the hallowed words “separation of church and state?”

If I’m not mistaken, there will be a reckoning, a judgment day. And the one who is judging knows not the limitations of separation.

Separation of church and state. What our founding fathers wanted was a religious freedom in those words. We have demonstrated yet again as a nation that does not mean freedom from religion, but freedom TO religion. Freedom to worship. Freedom to be in church both as independent people and as a nation mourning. Freedom to not be judged because we do or do not believe. Freedom to never darken the door of the church. Freedom to worship in churches and sanctuaries and synagogues and temples and under the stars. Freedom to believe or reject.

• Rev. Matt Idom is pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Bryan.

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