From earliest days I was taught to respect the Bible as God's holy Word. In particular that meant respecting the actual physical Bible. It was to be handled with reverence; never thrown away carelessly, and never stacked under lesser books. It was even suggested by some that I not mark up my Bible; but I could never resist the need to underline and comment on the more engrossing passages. Whenever I am inclined to question the Muslim reverence for their Koran, I remind myself of the respect I give to the Bible. And my much respected Bible shows the creasing, curling, and staining of much use.
A few days ago I chanced upon a Bible that suggested both new beginnings and a handsome artifact to use in preaching sermons. It was heavy and large, with very big, clear type—almost a necessity now in my time of 2.00 reading glasses. It was leather-bound in supple blue and gray tones. And it was displayed in a presentation box that featured historical Americana—the pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock, George Washington praying at Valley Forge, and a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence. The box proclaimed this as "The American Patriot's Bible." That title is also embossed on the leather cover. Only on the box does it explain that this is "the Word of God and the Shaping of America. "This Bible has many historical inserts and even sprinkles power quotes on Americana among the texts of Scripture.
I remember hearing Justice Scalia, an arch-conservative Supreme Court justice, explain why he voted to uphold a constitutional right for someone to burn or mistreat the flag. He remarked that even his wife railed at his considered but controversial decision. Well, I now possess a Holy Bible that includes a retelling of American history as a God-directed thing. And I wonder, is reverence for the integrity of the physical Bible transferred and incorporated into American patriotism? It certainly looks like the affairs of the secular state are being subsumed into the sanctity of the Divine Word. To me, it is a step back in time, to the era of Parson Weems and the theological imagining of a "holy nation" on a new continent. It is a step back to the days when public school prayers were the stuff of patriotism and a study of the Bible was but another part of the book of American manifest destiny.
In religious liberty circles there is often mention of the Abington School District v. Schemp case, even if the general public has forgotten it. I stumbled across a summary of it the other day on an atheist website and couldn't help but be reminded at the polarizing effect it had in 1963. After all, why should atheists be the ones so happy at a decision that not only upheld the Constitution, but protected all from a biased or incorrect state religion. Till that point Bible reading had been routine in public schools. Then one day at the Abingdon High School near Philadelphia, schoolboy Ellery Schemp, asked to read from the Bible over the public address system, instead read from the Koran. He was expelled. But it was not a thoughtless prank. His family, Unitarians, did not believe the schools should promote any religion. Their son's action led to a good deal of harassment, and threats. They were accused of being un-American.
In an 8-1 decision the high court upheld the lower court ruling against the religious requirements in the schools. Many mainline Protestants and Jews saw the decision as a protection not an attack. However many evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics strongly opposed it. Evangelicals thought it natural for the United States to advance their form of religion; and the Catholics perhaps were more comfortable with state paternalism. What many even today miss in that decision was a clear recognition by the court that religious ideals are a vital part of society—but not under a government mandate to inculcate them. In writing for the majority, Justice Thomas Clark noted that the Constitution requires neutrality in matters of religion—and allows "teaching the noblest principles of virtue, morality, patriotism, and good order."
One could wish that "good order" were more present in politics today. Sometimes I think the good order is gone and replaced by bad religion. To me, bad religion is a belief that needs coercion to flourish; that seeks to restrict other religious opinion; and in the model of medieval times, seeks political power to advance a religious agenda. This year has seen too much of that.
Oh, I know the temptation to demagoguery knows no political party. And it has become all too obvious that all the major actors have an eye toward influencing religious sensibilities and the vote that comes with them. And yes, some will even play against religion; but that too is playing the religion card.
There was one recent political advertisement that caught my eye for its over the top invocation of religious motivation. I feel free to comment on this "Catholic" video, since like so many other proxy ads of late, the track to any parent organization is unclear. All I know is that "The Test of Fire" was produced by a conservative, Florida-based Catholic organization. It is a powerful presentation and extremely persuasive once you suspend concerns for a separation of church and state.
The visual theme is a blacksmith's shop as he forges iron brands ranging from "jobs," "election,""taxes,""energy," to "life,""marriage," and "freedom." As the music swells the faithful are asked to vote in the presidential election. Why? The banner says that "Catholics across the nation will have an opportunity shape the future for our generation and the generations to come." A little more than the four-year call, obviously. Eternity is alluded to, and the text from Psalm 127:1 flashes across the screen: "Unless the Lord builds the house then those who build it labor in vain." A sobering text and one that should guide each of us in our daily lives, in our homes and influence our interaction with society. But this is a political advertisement and call to political action. Are Catholics or anyone else to see the building of the body politic as analogous to the Lord's house? My Patriot's Bible would also suggest as much, but my knowledge of history, theology, and the Constitution warns me otherwise.
Now I know that the Catholic Church is supersensitive on the issue of contributing to a healthcare system that provides services that it disagrees with. One must respect that sensitivity. One also cannot write such sensitivity too large or many individuals and maybe churches would refuse any support or taxes, direct and indirect, toward a system that does innumerable things we disagree with—at times immoral things. That said the call of the video does encapsulate as false a dynamic as that lovely Patriot's Bible and those comforting pre-Abington Bible readings. Bannered large at the beginning was this: "In generations past, the church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. This generation of Catholics must do the same." Now I have enough faith in this generation of Catholics that as before they will vote every party on the ticket, as their consciences and understanding of the issues call them to. What I pray is that they continue to see their vote as a civic duty and not just as an obligation to protect the rights and obligations of the church. We are voting for the secular state, not for the remaking of a subsidiary regime that might echo the needs of the church.
My Bible speaks much of holiness. There is a thread of a yearning for holiness in the American experience. When at its best it was expressed in the national regeneration of at least two Great Awakenings. At its worst it was the misdirected battle hymns of the Civil War, where as Abraham Lincoln observed, both sides imagined they were fighting a holy war. Holiness yearning was once motivated by a Protestant insistence on personal spiritual renewal. A small vision holiness has led to thinking that the state might teach morals and faith where home and church have been found wanting.
To keep to the model of a separation of church and state will require some conscious choices by a lot of individuals. Not just at the ballot box.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."