August 5, 2009

The First Amendment and the Myth of Neutrality

I recently attended a First Amendment Forum which included a presentation called "Finding Common Ground: Religious Liberty in the Public Schools" by Dr. Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. The forum was held at Milton High School in Santa Rosa County, Florida, and was attended by school administrators, teachers, and local clergy. The forum followed a recent lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County schools by the ACLU on behalf of two students who charged that teachers were forcing religion upon them. The first amendment restricts the power of Congress to make a law "respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The fourteenth amendment extends these restrictions to the states and agencies of the states. Dr. Haynes' presentation advanced a reading of the first amendment which advocated a neutral position toward religion on the part of government and government schools. He advocated moving beyond two failed models which he termed: The Sacred Public School and the Naked Public School. The so-called sacred public school is one in which religious practices are mandatory (e.g. prayer and bible readings). The naked public school is one in which there is no presence of religion at all. Instead, Dr. Haynes proposed a "civil public school" in which the school does not "inculcate nor inhibit religion" and where "religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect." According to Dr. Haynes, such a school would be neutral with regard to religion. This "shared vision for religious liberty in public schools" has been accepted by such (allegedly) diverse organizations as People for the American Way and the National Association of Evangelicals.

The problem with this "shared vision" is that there is no such thing as neutrality with regard to religion. The central claim of the biblical and historical Christian religion is nothing less than the declaration that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord over everything including the Church, the governing authorities, the public schools, and every constituent of every religion in the world. Jesus is Lord over all people and every institution. The fact that many people and institutions do not acknowledge his lordship does not actually negate or alter his lordship. Jesus is Lord no matter what anyone thinks. That Jesus is Lord all the time and everywhere necessarily means that there is no such thing as neutrality with regard to him. He requires faith and obedience. Not to render faith and obedience is nothing other than disobedience and rebellion against his universal claim to universal lordship. Neutrality is a myth; there is no such thing.

In my view, Dr. Haynes’ proposal really advances a new civil religion. This new state religion which is being foisted upon our children is pluralistic acknowledging many deities and giving them all fair (?) hearing. The gods of this new state religion form a pantheon of pagan-like demigods which are merely projections of our own damaged and sinful human image. In attempting to combine all religions into one common meeting place where all are seen with equal validity misunderstands them all. Jesus Christ expects total and unqualified allegiance from everyone. The problem is that so do other deities, but only one can reign. If Dr. Haynes’ interpretation of the first amendment is correct (and it may not be), then it cannot be reconciled with the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Christians must not be persuaded by the myth of neutrality. That Christian groups like the National Association of Evangelicals have signed off on Dr. Haynes’ vision for public education only demonstrates that they do not actually understand the evangel itself. The gospel includes the news that Jesus is Lord over all, and we must understand that Jesus’ claims to lordship are total. To place him alongside other gods is to patronize him. Every institution which claims neutrality towards him is actually antagonistic to him. Christians should not be satisfied with simply gaining a hearing or getting a place at the table. We should only be satisfied when the Lordship of Christ is acknowledged at the table. If it is not, perhaps we should abandon the table. Jesus is Lord! We look forward to the day when this is the confession of every tongue.

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