America has had more than its share of court cases and challenges regarding prayer in our public schools. I can actually mark stages of my developing memory about growing up in America by these various challenges and debates. I remember, very vividly, when the Supreme Court first ruled on separation challenges regarding opening the day with prayer in our schools. I remember how Christians vehemently protested and spoke against the "evil" Warren Court for years. I also remember the hatred so many had for Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the flamboyant atheist who crusaded against "state-sponsored" prayers for years. I remember how Ronald Reagan made this a big emotional issue in his campaign for the White House in 1980. Many said that the day God turned against America was the same day that "we kicked him out of our public schools." This decision took on apocalyptic overtones. I still meet a few folks who believe this story with deep conviction. I also remember that Reagan was unable to do much about changing the court's decision. The truth is that nothing has happened since to fundamentally alter these movements and court decisions begun in the 1950s.
Now we have another hotly-debated court case about prayer in our schools in the headlines. Jessica Ahlquist, an atheist high school student in Rhode Island, was recently part of a successful lawsuit to remove a longstanding printed prayer on the wall of her school auditorium. The response to Jessica has been nothing short of amazing. She has been threatened on-line and ostracized at school. She has stood before angry crowds of parents who have attacked her for her public stand. It has gotten so bad that Jessica needs police protection at school.
What should Christians think and do about this situation?
First, it would help if we had a much better grasp of the legal and Constitutional issues. Jessica is arguing for freedom of religion from the state, but in a way that appears to many to be an attack on religion. In fact I think the decision underscores the protection that our state gives to all religious expression. As we become even more religiously diverse I believe this reality will be more important to serious Christians. Let me explain.
What is being challenged here? A prayer posted on a wall asking for mental and physical growth, for kindness and good sportsmanship and for students to bring credit to their high school. It is, in simple terms, a rather innocuous prayer. It is not, to put this plainly, a deeply Christian, Christ-centered expression of faithful belief and practice. It is an expression of civil religion. It is a relic of our culture, a culture that is rapidly changing.
Do we believe that it is the role of the state to be the custodian of our faith in some public way? If you want to trace this argument go back to Emperor Constantine, where Christianity was granted official state protection and wedded to the state in a manner that gave it preference over Roman deities. The results of this marriage have been, at best, very mixed. Religious wars and major shifts in cultures have resulted from this arrangement. In America we separated church and state, primarily to protect the church from the state. Over the course of 225-plus years we have been working out what this actually looks like in a society that was predominantly Christian, at least in a cultural sense. When the state sponsors or supports any expression of faith, Christian or otherwise, what we get is civil religion. Why do we fight so hard to protect this form of civil religion when the clear facts are that it is not working as it once did? Further, is civil religion really the friend of vibrant, prophetic, radical discipleship in public? I think not.
But the more intriguing question in the Jessica Ahlquist story is what Christians are actually doing, or not doing, in regards to this student? Those who are attacking this girl call themselves Christians. (The town is heavily Roman Catholic.) As these citizens embrace their expression of civil religion they show just how meaningless and misguided this approach is by their daily actions.
Think about this for a minute. If the parents and students at this school want to defend biblical Christianity they should pour out true love for Jessica. They should stand by her in this very difficult time. This girl, who needs police protection at her high school, cannot even receive flowers from well-wishers who have tried to send them through her from local florists. Jessica is a neighbor but she has been turned into an enemy. Nothing could be further from the clear commands of Jesus.
What is being confirmed in the minds of millions who watch this story unfold? I believe many will draw the conclusion that Christianity is about power and getting our way. Rather than being about love for neighbor it is really about meaningless, divisive speech, a form of speech that further reduces the church's power to spread the good news. Through the actions of people in Rhode Island, and far beyond, multitudes show that faith is more about a prayer on a school wall than about a suffering girl who is threatened and vilified.
In microcosm this story reflects what is going on in our culture. Civil religion is still very strong, make no mistake about that. But brick-by-brick this cultural house is coming down. It seems to me that we have several ways we can respond. One is to fight these battles through protest and partisan political struggles. (Christians invest millions of hours and dollars in these efforts!) Another response is to work for a new public square where all religions have their place. In this context Christians can use this public square to openly witness to the love of Christ through words and actions that are consistent with a robust missional faith. We can even share the gospel. This is what my son's mission, Crossroads Kids Club, is doing inside public school buildings every week. (Most Christians protest taking a prayer off the wall of the school yet they care very little about sharing the story of Christ's love with the kids inside the schools when you actually show them that it is both legal and easy for a local church to do!)
So which will it be? Will we accept what has happened to civil religion and adjust to this new reality of a plurality of faiths in America? Will we go inward and be silent or simply protest these decisions of the courts? Or will we love the Jessica Alhquists of the world and show them how much God actually loves them through our words and actions? Will we actually adopt a missional mindset that is in line with what Jesus taught and use the freedom of religion that we still have in this great country to make disciples of Jesus?