Editor’s Note: The following lecture was presented at Grove City College on February 22, 2001 as part of the 125th Anniversary Speaker Series.
I was originally planning tonight to present a general lecture about Christophobia in American life. The current debate over President Bush’s faith-based initiative, however, presents a terrific case study of the phenomenon, as well as an indication of how things have changed during the past two decades and especially during the past two years. I want to talk about answers to Christophobic questions posed by many reporters: Will you allow proselytizing? Won’t loose lips regarding God sink the first amendment? Will churches corrupt government?
Fear of Proselytizing
I’ll start with the journalistic question from the left most frequently asked so far: Under President Bush’s faith-based initiative, will groups that proselytize be eligible for government funding? The public relations tendency is to calm the journalists’ concern with a “no how, no way” response. But it’s not that simple.
Try a football analogy, based on the problem of the forward pass. Back-to-basics football coaches tend to frown on it because three things can happen when a quarterback throws one: completion, incomplete pass, interception. Two of the three are bad. The same can be said about proselytizing. To some the word connotes forced religious conversion. To others it means offering bribes to say some religious words or engage in some ritual. Two possible definitions are bad. But proselytizing can also suggest a mode of discussion that leads to a free, informed choice.
Here’s a bit of history: the word proselyte emerged in Greek and Latin 1,800 years ago as a term for a person converting to Judaism. Proselytize, a word that first appeared in 1679, means to induce a person to convert to one’s faith. What kind of inducement? The pressure of force is the worst. In Russia under the Czars, Jews were sometimes drafted into the army and forced to undergo baptism, as if that made a person a Christian. That’s the image some folks have of proselytizing, and it’s not surprising.
A second type of inducement, also bad, is the material inducement offered as a payoff for making a profession of faith. Missionaries in Asia once warned of the danger of encouraging what they called “rice Christians,” those who might say anything so as to get a bowl of rice. What if Christians running a homeless shelter today tied the provision of food and shelter, “three hots and a cot,” to saying some supposedly magic words about Jesus? That brand of proselytizing would also be labeled both dumb and disgraceful, and rightly so. Happily, we don’t have that type of proselytizing in America. What’s common at faith-based groups are counselors who tell discouraged clients that a wonderful God created them in His own image, so that there is something wonderful about the clients themselves. The counselors also talk about how belief in God is good not only for themselves but for others as well.
Christians in particular are called to engage in that third type of proselytizing, also known as evangelizing. The last command of Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark is to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Christians call that “the great commission.” Throughout most of American history evangelical Protestants and Catholics have run homeless shelters in large American cities, offering both material and spiritual food. Individuals have not been forced in, but those who came were expected to listen to some kind of sermon.
I’ve listened to sermons at homeless shelters and feeding programs in Chicago, New York and Washington, and in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas as well. Some have been good. Some have been bad. Most have been short. None of the listeners has ever been forced to say anything. For most people it’s natural to hear a sermon at a Christian shelter. As long as secular alternatives are available, why is this terrible?
Over the next few months, whenever we hear someone praise or (more likely) condemn proselytizing, we should ask, “What do you mean by that?” Some people think of proselytizing as badgering a person until he gives in. That’s rude, and wrong. Other people don’t like the idea of ever encountering, or having others encounter, unfashionable religious ideas. But the freedom to proselytize in that sense is part of our liberty, and it makes our land sweet. If a journalist or U.S. senator starts blazing against proselytizing, defenders of President Bush’s initiative should not become defensive but should stay on offense. Since when in America should we be afraid of freedom of speech and a free exchange of ideas?
The first amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …” That initial clause, in the language of two centuries ago, means that Congress shall not establish – give preference to – a religion. The second clause means that people who believe in God should be able to carry through on that belief not just for an hour on Sunday but all through the week. Let me emphasize this: “An establishment of religion” means designating one religion as the one that receives preference and direct funding from government, to the exclusion of other religious views. Madison assured members of Congress debating the first amendment in 1789 that it would not cut off government support from religion generally. The amendment was needed, he said, because “the people feared that one sect might obtain a preeminence.”
Even Thomas Jefferson, who as president wrote in a private letter those famous words about “a wall of separation” between church and state, signed treaties with Indian tribes that included the provision of federal money to build churches and support clergymen. Jefferson even extended three times an act that designated federal lands for “the sole use of Christian Indians and the Moravian Brethren missionaries for use in civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity.” Jefferson, more than any of the other founders, wanted a wall, but even he did not put broken glass on top of it.
The U.S. Supreme Court for a century and a half assumed a friendly relationship between church and state. Famed Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story even wrote in 1833 that the first amendment allowed “Christianity … to receive encouragement from the state, so far as not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship.” Jefferson’s wall metaphor languished for years until the Supreme Court pulled it out of the historical dust in 1947, but even then “separation of church and state” did not mean separation of people who believe in God from any governmental connection.
One of the leading Supreme Court secularists, Justice William O. Douglas, wrote in 1952 that if church and state were always separated, “the state and religion would be aliens to each other?- hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly.” Douglas’s most famous sentence, when he wrote the majority opinion in Zorach v. Clausen, was, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” But he went on to emphasize “the religious nature of our people” and the need for an understanding that “accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. … [We] find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence.”
Other justices have reasoned similarly. In the 1960s, Justice Arthur Goldberg warned of the need to avoid “a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious.” In the 1970s Chief Justice Warren Burger played with the “wall of separation” metaphor, writing that “the line of separation, far from being ‘a wall,’ is a blurred, indistinct and variable barrier.” In the 1980s now-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, dissenting in Wallace v. Jaffree, wrote that “The ‘wall of separation between church and state’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.” Nevertheless, in recent years the Supreme Court has gone a long way to opening up schools to a variety of religious influences and messages, as long as the government is not giving preference to one. The barrier is more blurred than ever, and only spinmeisters can claim otherwise.
Given the blur, I believe the key question that the Supreme Court might consider is not whether the Bush attitude of welcoming all religious groups should be allowed, but whether it must be allowed. A strong argument can be made that we have been violating for three or four decades now the first amendment’s emphasis on a level playing field. For example, within churches, one longstanding debate has pitted supporters of the ministry of the deed – “just feed people” – vs. defenders of holistic ministry: feed, yes, but also present verbally who Christ is. Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and some other groups advocate the former. I believe that the latter is more in keeping with the position of Christ: After all, he fed people only twice, and both times after he had taught them.
Regardless of which side you’re on, here’s the important constitutional point: this is a theological debate. Should the federal government be putting its thumb on the scale by preferring one religious view and redlining the other? That’s what happens when bureaucrats say, “OK, theologically liberal Christians, you can have free expression of your faith within governmental programs by feeding people. Theological conservatives, you need to be gagged, because adding verbal explanation to material help is not allowed.”
The second way our government has shown bias is by seeing things in an opposite way to that of the boy in the famous story about the emperor’s new clothes. You’ll remember that the emperor is actually naked but everyone except the honest little boy pretends that he is dressed. Here, our tendency has been to pretend that government offices have no religious clothes if they do not endorse Christianity, Judaism or some other theistic faith. Actually, they do, and even if the government were to eliminate grants to Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services, that would not solve the first amendment problem.
Why? Look at the secondary standard dictionary definition of “religion”: “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” In that sense, the materialism that dominates government programs – the idea that people are wholly material and that satisfying material needs solves the problem – is also a religion, and one we have now established. If you think that’s stretching the first amendment, I would draw your attention to some of the debates of the 1780s. Those voting for the first amendment knew of the danger of establishing secularism; and they made it clear, as Benjamin Huntington of Connecticut and others stipulated, that the government should not “patronize” – give patronage to – atheists in practice.
I’ve talked about the importance of allowing a liberty-preserving type of proselytizing and of discarding the notion that the first amendment is hostile to religion. I also want to deal with what will happen if we get either of these two things wrong, and thereby kick out evangelical groups from participation in any governmental programs. Here’s my concern: I’ve known some enormously self-sacrificing atheists; but for the most part people who volunteer for the time-intensive, week-in-week-out, one-to-one mentoring of needy individuals do so because of faith in God.
Typically, such individuals believe that God wants them to persevere in such self-sacrificial loving of their neighbors as themselves. Many also believe that their faith in God has changed them, and that the greatest gift they can offer to those they are helping is to convey that understanding of how God changes lives. If government officials tell such volunteers that any kind of federal program funding means they cannot speak about what is most important to them and to the future of their clients, those volunteers will not participate. If that happens, the programs will work poorly, or not at all.
I had lunch recently with a good man, a Democratic state representative in Texas, who thought that it would not be hard to find volunteers to join the armies of compassion. If we’re just talking about passing out food occasionally, or even tutoring a child, I think he is right. If our emphasis, though, is on finding volunteers willing to “suffer with” those in need – that’s the literal definition of compassion – by coming alongside people who have messed up their lives, the task is harder. If we hope for volunteers to persevere week after week after week, for several hours every week, the task is much, much harder.
We cannot assume that marginalizing some very effective groups will have no effect on the provision of mercy. We need a strategy that understands the curve of supply side compassion. Shutting off evangelicals, or others who believe that a change in heart is more important than passing out spare change, will reduce sharply the outflow of compassion.
I have confidence in how President Bush will react to attempts to redline evangelicals or any others who believe in the ministry of the word as well as the ministry of the deed. That confidence is based partly on my understanding of what he believes. It is also based on what he has said repeatedly: “We will never ask an organization to compromise its core principles and spiritual mission to get the help it needs.” Never is a long-lasting word. I’m also confident because of how President Bush acted under pressure during the campaign. He identified Jesus as his favorite thinker and did not back down even when that angered some journalists But the pressure on him will be enormous, and he needs our prayers.
This brings me to observations about who is on offense and who is on defense in American culture right now, and on what yard line the ball is placed. It astounds me that folks on the left talk as if theocrats have marched down the field to the secularists’ red zone and are poised to score. American churches and other religious institutions are weak in relation to our massive government. Faith-based welfare operates largely at the margins and will continue to do so for at least the next decade, even under the most optimistic compassionate conservative projections.
If the United States were about to be taken over by a particular religion, we would have to ignore the supply side considerations and other matters I have spoken of in order to protect liberty. But let’s get real, and let’s bulwark observation of reality with a Madisonian view of politics. In the 1780s James Madison turned conventional analysis on its head by seeing the numerous factions within a large country not as a danger but as a source of strength. Today, so many religious groups compete in the American ideological marketplace, and so many of them are critical of each other, that we have no danger of a religious cabal grabbing power.
Why do we hear so often in media and academia these fears of religion? I suspect that we’re seeing rampant Christophobia, which is far more prevalent than homophobia, although you wouldn’t know that from press coverage. (I checked Lexis-Nexis and found less than one reference to Christophobia, on average, over the past 20 years but over 1,000 in each recent year to homophobia.) We saw it in the attacks on conservative Christians during last year’s primary, and we see it regularly in Hollywood’s snide depictions of Christians.
Such sarcasm trivializes the real issues. The Bible describes a true phobia-fear of God and his angels-that actually is a consuming fire for many. Virtually every Scriptural angel says to those quivering in the presence of the supernatural, “Fear not.” I believe that all of us are sinners and have good reason to fear a holy God, until He graciously tells us, “fear not,” and even more graciously provides a way to escape His wrath. I believe that if we run from Christ we fear him all the more, because deep down we know we are throwing away our best hope. So Christophobia, unlike homophobia, is widespread.
How Christophobic has America become? Two centuries ago Americans opposed any particular denomination becoming the established religion, but they saw biblical belief underlying our entire government and social structure. Alexis de Toqueville in the early 19th century noted that “Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.” But the Williamsburg Charter Survey on Religion and Public Life a decade ago found 92% of surveyed academics demanding a “high wall of separation” between church and state. One-third even claimed that evangelicals are “a threat to democracy.”
One perceptive viewer of this bias today is not a Christian but an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. Daniel Lapin wrote in his book, America’s Real War, “The educational bureaucracy expects the state to accommodate every possible bizarre cultural mutation and lifestyle, but finds prayer at graduation an intolerable and fatal compromise of state neutrality toward religion.” Phobias produce illogic. Rabbi Lapin also noted that “Those of us who venerate freedom, be we Jewish or Christian, be we religious or secularized, have no option but to pray for the health of Christianity in America. No other group possesses both the faith and the numbers sufficient to hold back the ever-encroaching, sometimes sinister, power of the state.”
Christophobia in America is not primarily connected to Judaism or any other non-Christian religion; liberal Protestant churches are often the most Christophobic of all. A tough-minded evangelical presence brings with it the moral confrontation that Christ emphasized and that churches fleeing from the Gospel hope to avoid. But churches and members that have given up their heritage do have much to fear, because in God’s economy it is not better to have loved and walked away than never to have loved at all. We are now understanding more about the emotional devastation known as post-abortion syndrome. We need to look into post-biblical syndrome, a mourning for what is lost even when smiles on the outside remain.
I do believe that George W. Bush could be a great president because he could do for some aspects of Christophobia what Ronald Reagan did for some aspects of conservatism. President Reagan did not win over hardcore liberals, but he showed many folks in the middle that fear of conservatism was misplaced. President Bush can reduce the level of Christophobia by explaining publicly, as he did in January, why it’s vital to emphasize “changing lives by changing hearts.”
His performance that day with the religious leaders was dynamic. Aware of the bias against religious groups, he pledged to fight it, and acknowledged that his attempt to do so will “come under withering fire by some.” But then came the pledge: “I promise you I will stand up for what I believe … an initiative and a vision that will fundamentally change our country.” Some folks in the room reported on the suspicions that abound, but President Bush, while saying “I fully understand the fears of people of faith,” emphasized how important it was to go on offense instead of constantly being on defense.
President Bush also spoke of person-to-person compassion, arguing that “This was the core of America. … Then government stepped in, and everyone said government could do it.” He predicted a legal battle with those who demand that religion be banned from government premises; but, he insisted, “we’ll win it.” He said, “The first fight will be with the press corps.” He knew it would be hard, but he insisted: “This is the right thing to do.” He showed his personal understanding of why that is the right thing to do: “I was lost and then I was found.” And he knew that what is most needed is religious revival in America.
What was extraordinary here was President Bush’s evident belief that religious faith is not just something to express during an hour on Sunday, but something significant for action all through the week. I think he understands that the Sabbath is the last day of the week but also the first. It’s a day of rest but also a day for reloading. We’ve come a long way from a defensive crouch, hoping that just maybe we can have a Bible study in our home without someone calling the police.
The real promise of President Bush’s initiatives is contained in the words that are etched on the administration building of the University of Texas at Austin, and on many similar buildings throughout the country. The sentence, from the Gospel According to John, is simple yet profound: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”