Critics of religion have fired an opening salvo against the Hamilton County Commission for public prayers uttered before meetings by the elected representatives of the people.
Ferf, or the Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in wintry Wisconsin, sent a letter this week to commission chairman Fred Skillern demanding that the civil authority cease prayers in Christ’s name. Petitions to God “impermissibly advance Christianity,” he said, violate the federal constitution and ignore his claim that the U.S. is “the first nation to adopt a secular constitution, investing sovereignty in ‘We the People,’ not a divine entity.”
Ferf does have the grace to be forbearing; it would tolerate prayers by rotating Christians and pagans, by allowing a commissioner to pray in Christ’s name one month but having the group of Christian county legislators submit to a prayer in the name of Allah the next, and Buddha the third, and the polytheist entities of Mormonism the fourth. This rotation would suit the group’s egalitarian premise. But Ferf really is much bolder than being a drab espouser of ordinary equalism. The group is willing to subject itself to chaos, and to project chaos upon government bodies that violate what is properly religious.
To Ferf, chaos is better than submission to the religion that, unlike any other, has transformed the world and its institutions, its art, commerce, industry, forms of government, technology, its science, medicine and its mode of worship. The true worship of God, given first to single families in the ancient Middle East — Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and other chosen descendants of Adam and Noah, — and then to a single people — the confederation of tribes of ancient Israel and a successor unitary kingdom. This true worship since the resurrection of the Lord Jesus has confronted every artifice of manmade worship and destroyed it, replaced it with the Christian civilization. Christendom, for all the imperfections of its proponents, has given us the blessings of Western culture, including concepts such as the subjection of government to written law and the freedom of speech. ‡
But to the critics of Christendom, chaos is better, and for their stance we can only admire them. Though the letter’s author, Patrick Elliott, an attorney, suggests he is open to a hodgepodgery of prayers to other deities, to even things out, he really isn’t.
His remonstrance to Hamilton County is proudly materialist and secularist, as he casts it about. But I cannot escape the impression that he is as much making a religious argument no less than the members of the county commission. To seek to impose silence on prayer, particularly on prayer to God given in the name of Christ, is a religious act.
Mr. Elliott and his principals at the foundation join other combatants in taking sides on the question, “Is God real, and is he there?” Well-known partisans who denied the God of Abraham include:
➤ Nebuchadnezzar. The king forbade prayer except to his idol on the plain of Dura, the one to whom Daniel refused to make obeisance. Daniel 3 tells the story
➤ The priests of Baal. These men had the king, the evil Ahab, on their side, and they desired to destroy the prophet Elijah, who insisted that the Israelites repent of their sins and obey God’s law. Elijah confronted the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel in a clash in which God by miracles of fire from Heaven gave the prophet the authority to slaughter the priests. He executed them by the Brook Kishon. I Kings 18.
➤ Councils of the Pharisees. In the book of Acts, officials forbade the Apostles to speak in the name of Jesus. Ananias and his party were committed to a rival idea about the coming Messiah. Despising his low estate, they denied that Christ fulfilled prophecies about the coming of a Savior. See chapter 5.
To make an argument against Christ and to bow to secularism and religious neutrality, Mr. Elliott must join the battle over God. His cry against “violations” by the county’s men at the gates and his bid for neutrality, in other words, is not neutral in itself.
Mr. Elliott and Ferf may find U.S. district and appellate judges who agree with his proposed gag against Christian prayer before a county business meeting. The religious motivation behind his effort to reach these judicial verdicts is as partisan as the ordinary pleas for grace and wisdom from Commission Chairman Fred Skillern or others. To squelch God’s people’s voice and to silence voter-elected public figures from praying in Christ’s name is a religious assertion, a doctrinal claim.
A call from below
What kind of teaching does Ferf uphold? What is its main doctrine of religion? A doctrine, remember, is a set of beliefs held by a church, university or political party. For a Christian, the teaching of the bodily resurrection of Christ, the atonement or sovereign grace are points of doctrine. They bind the Christian because they arise from his written source of authority, the Bible.
Let me get at Ferf’s main religious doctrine obliquely by opening a book at a chapter that is this week’s reading at the C.S. Lewis Society of Chattanooga that meets Friday. I am reaching for a point that may be too big to compress into a few lines, but let me try. In his essay “Transposition,” Lewis delves into a wonderful idea that lets him explore a favorite topic for him — heaven. His essay is about how man, a finite, physical creature, can know God, who is a spirit and does not have a body as we do.
The diverse group Christians who gather to discuss the work of the Christian apologist Lewis are doing so in light of the coming Lord’s Day, which many believers celebrate as Pentecost Sunday. Commemorated is the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Apostles and a roomful of people to give them the gift of speaking in tongues.
In “Transposition,” a sermon delivered on a Pentecost Sunday, Lewis explores how a person’s emotional state might have a physical side to it. A transport of joy might have the same bodily manifestation as a pang of grief. He explains how a religious transport such as speaking in a foreign tongue could be explained biologically, as a skeptic is wont to do. But he is unwilling to cede the possibility of their being human experiences that do not originate with material of flesh, hair and spit, but are divine. There are, he says in the book, Weight of Glory, in which the essay appears, ways of explaining human experience from above, and from below.
You can put it whichever way you please. You can say that by Transposition our humanity, senses and all, can be made the vehicle of beatitude. Or you can say that the heavenly bounties by Transposition are embodied during during this life in our temporal experience. But the second way is the better. It is the present life which is the diminution, the symbol, the etiolated, the (as it were) “vegetarian” substitute. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too “illustrious with being.” They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal. (Page 111)
Clashing exclusivist swords
Transposition conveys the idea of a higher being translated into a lower. A delight is transformed from the plain of emotion, sense and spirit to a bodily reaction, the same reaction that might be created by an instant of agony or sickness. As his depiction of life, more complex systems translate into less complex ones. But, also, “in varying degrees the lower reality can actually be drawn into the higher” and be a part of it. Christ’s incarnation enables converted sinners to become sons on the earth and in eternity.
We now see that the spiritual is richer than the natural (as no one who believes in its existence would deny), then this is exactly what we should expect. And the sceptic’s conclusion that the so-called spiritual is really derived from the natural, that it is a mirage or projection or imaginary extension of the natural, is also exactly what we should expect, for, as we have seen, this is the mistake that an observer who knew only the lower medium be bound to make in every case of Transposition. The brutal man ever can by analysis find anything but lust in love; the Flatlander can never find anything but flat shapes in a picture; physiology never can find anything in thought except twitchings of the grey matter. (Page 104)
Lewis sees no point in “browbeating the critic’ who approaches Transposition from below. “On the evidence available to him his conclusion is the only one possible.”
Mr. Elliott and Ferf are peeved by public prayers by the people’s representatives. But, coming at Lewis’ concept of translation from below, they have no choice but to make war. Their afflatus is not from the divine, but from the gut — from the material world. The conviction is no doubt a religious one, which explains the zeal with which Ferf evangelizes in small towns and huge cities across the fruited plain, hissing threats of litigation. They must do all in their power to affirm their belief that there is no transcendence, only immanence. There is no God, no spirit world, no devil, no heaven or hell, just protoplasm, mutual tolerance and group hugs.
Mr. Elliott’s condescension to allowing any prayer is based on his understanding about the combative claims of Christianity. He recognizes that Christianity is exclusive and hostile to idolatry, paganism, heathenism and all other worship outside the scope of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. He would accept Christian prayers if Christianity can be made equal in an official formula to other religions. This humiliation disguised as chaos is, let me suggest, his Ferf’s sole purpose.
Note: to consider these issues and others, our city’s C.S. Lewis Society meets once a month. On Friday it convenes across the street from Camp House, 1427 Williams St., 7 p.m., in the craft room. Email Rev. Beckmann to get on his mailing list. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: HarperCollins, 1980)
Patrick Elliott letter to Hamilton County Commission, May 21, 2012, downloaded from Timefreepress.com
See Douglas Wilson, Letter from a Christian Citizen (Powder Springs, Ga.: American Vision, 2007)
‡ Let me cite again Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World [;] How the Bible created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011)